Imitation or Innovation? A Look at Antique & Vintage Paste Jewellery
Above: A vintage green and white paste ring in 9ct rose gold, now sold - Goldcrest Antique & Vintage
What is Paste?
The word "paste" is thrown around loosely when it comes to jewellery. But what is it, exactly?
Technically "paste" is the term for cut glass. Originally this was high-lead glass cut by hand and either polished with a metal powder, or backed by foil to give it the appearance of a gemstone. It was called "paste" because the components of the lead mixture were mixed wet, hence creating a paste. The glass could be created in varying colours using pigments, ranging from intense greens to vivid reds to deep blues.
So - it's an imitation? Well, yes, but I'm going to tell you why you absolutely should not ignore antique and vintage paste!
History of Paste
Above: A paste pendant of German origin by an unknown maker, circa 1800-1870 - Victoria & Albert Museum
Humans have been cutting glass in an attempt to imitate gemstones for centuries. You will find paste stones in rings dating back to the 1st Century in museums. The Romans seemed to be particularly proficient in producing coloured cut glass for use in jewellery, but it wasn't until the 1730's that jeweller Georg Friedrich Strass, of Wolfisheim, created a business that exclusively created and sold paste stones.
Strass is credited with the invention of the colourless paste. Initially these were intended to simulate diamonds, however paste stones soon became popular in their own right. By altering the glass's colour using metal salts and, later, attaching metal foil to the backs of the stones, Strass was able to create a convincing diamond alternative that cost far less than the "real" thing.
Above: A pair of European antique colourless paste earrings by an unknown maker, circa 1760-1770 - Victoria & Albert Museum
Strass was so effective in fact that he was awarded the title of "King's Jeweller" in 1734, under the rule of King Louis XV, and was able to retire comfortably at age 52 in the year 1753.
From then onwards, paste jewellery remained popular throughout the Georgian and Victorian periods. The sentiment that paste was deigned an imitation meant for the less wealthy faded over time, and paste jewellery was enjoyed by the upper classes as well as nobility. In fact, some ladies would have replicas of their favourite jewels recreated in paste so the more valuable pieces could remain at home whilst they travelled. Lest we forget, highway robberies were commonplace during the 18th century - thieves on horseback would approach a travelling party and demand their money or valuables at gunpoint.
Above: An English antique heart locket displaying woven hair, with green pastes and pearls by an unknown maker, circa 1775-1800 - Victoria & Albert Museum
What's a Rhinestone then?
The terms "Rhinestone" and "Paste" cross over through history. In the 18th century the name Rhinestone was given to the rock crystals that were, quite literally, collected from the river Rhine which runs through Germany. These stones were coated with metal powder on the bottom to give them a glistening effect.
Above: An incredible antique tiara studded with Rhinestones, circa late 1700's - Wikipedia
This technique of coating was discovered by the aforementioned Alsation jeweller Georg Friedrich Strass - hence why Rhinestones are often referred to as "Strass" in Europe.
Nowadays however, the term "Rhinestone" is heavily associated with Swarovski - the famous Austrian producer of glass founded in 1895 - and generally refers to the more modern form of crystal glass.
Why should I buy paste jewellery?
To some people, "paste" is synonymous with "cheap" or "worthless". Whilst it is true that bad quality paste exists, it is equally true that beautiful paste stones sit within some of the most exquisite pieces of jewellery. If the examples above from the Victoria & Albert Museum weren't enough to convince you, remember that many antique paste stones were cut by hand; the amount of time and craftsmanship needed in forming such a thing is nothing to be scoffed at. Aside from admiring the artistry, it cannot be understated how effective some paste stones look - they are able to achieve rich, vivid colours that their gemstone counterparts may only dream of, and at a fraction of the cost to boot.
Above: A pair of vintage paste earrings in 14ct gold, now sold - Goldcrest Antique & Vintage
Paste jewellery in good condition can sometimes come with a hefty price tag if the piece is rare, unique or pristine, however it will generally be less expensive than if the stones were diamonds, rubies or emeralds for example. Disregarding the cost aspect, paste jewellery is long-lasting and durable. The fact that antique pieces dating to the Georgian and Victorian periods still exist today is testament to their strength.
Personally I love paste jewellery, and I enjoy wearing it just as much as gemstone pieces - antique and vintage paste just has so much character!
Above: Victorian Paste Drop Earrings in Gold and Silver, now sold - Goldcrest Antique & Vintage
You may have seen paste stones with a strong yellow or green tinge before. It's important to note that it is not actually the paste stone which has discoloured, but rather the foil backing or glue behind it. Let's take a look.
Above: An antique paste stone earring of Spanish origin with yellow discolouration, circa 1850-1870 - Victoria & Albert Museum
Above: A pair of vintage paste earrings in 9ct gold, one of which is discoloured - Goldcrest Antique & Vintage
As paste is made from glass, you don't need to worry about it yellowing whilst it's sitting in your jewellery box. If your paste jewellery isn't foil backed, or hasn't been glued into a setting, you aren't likely to experience any discolouration.
Check out the care section below for tips on avoiding the dreaded yellow or green tinge.
How do I look after my Paste jewellery?
How you care for your paste jewellery depends on how old it is, and how it is set (how the stones are mounted in the metal). Please do not attempt to clean any antique items or paste jewellery with closed backs (where the metal completely covers the back of the stone), as these may be backed by foil which could be damaged by water. Take these pieces into your local jeweller who will be able to assess and advise on the best way to clean them if necessary. Sometimes it is best to leave things be - enjoy the antique patina!
Above: An uncleaned antique closed-back paste cross pendant in silver, available now - Goldcrest Antique & Vintage
Open-backed, more modern paste jewellery can be gently cleaned with conventional jewellery cleaner or warm soapy water using a soft-bristled toothbrush. As always, be mindful of pieces containing lots of small stones as these can become dislodged by vigorous cleaning. If in doubt, or if you are inexperienced with handling jewellery, visit your local jeweller for advice.
As with all antique and vintage jewellery, do not leave it in direct sunlight. The sun's rays can damage foil backing over time and cause discolouration. Similarly paste jewellery should be kept in a dry, cool place away from moisture.
Discover our full range of paste jewellery on Goldcrest Antique & Vintage
Above: An Edwardian five stone paste ring paired with a 9ct rose gold signet ring, now sold - Goldcrest Antique & Vintage
Great article, Alice! I think an important thing to remember is that many of these pieces were worn in the evening, where they would be seen by candlelight and would no doubt sparkle just like diamonds. They are so beautiful!