Imitation gems have been substituted for their costly brethren in necklaces, bracelets, and other types of jewelry since the late 18th century, when Georg Friedrich Strass first mimicked diamonds by coating glass with metal powder. Made of rock crystal, acrylic, and leaded glass, these fakes were originally called paste or diamante, as well as strass after their Alsatian originator.
In the late 19th century, Austrian jeweler Daniel Swarovski produced the first real rhinestones as we think of them today. After painstaking experimentation, Swarovski devised a foil backing that made his high-quality faceted crystals almost indistinguishable from diamonds. Demand was so great that in 1892 he patented a mechanical cutter so his “stones” could be mass-produced.
The family business was originally located in the Gablonz area of Bohemia, but in 1895 Swarovski moved it to Austria near the Rhine River—his faux gems have been known as rhinestones ever since. Still manufactured in Austria today, the quality of Swarovski crystal remains unmatched.
While most people associate rhinestones with clear glass, these head-turning fakes aren’t only used as diamond copycats. Rhinestones also perform admirably as turquoise, carnelian, onyx, opals, rubies, and just about any other gemstone a jeweler might care to imitate.
Mass production made rhinestones popular during the Art Nouveau period, but it wasn't until the 1920s, when Coco Chanel championed costume jewelry, that rhinestones captured the popular imagination. With Chanel as their advocate, rhinestones matured from shabby second cousins of the genuine article—emerald earrings dusting the shoulders of debutantes, sapphires perched on matronly knuckles—into a credible fashion statement.
Fellow Parisian Elsa Schiaparelli nabbed a corner of the costume jewelry market with her own line, developed at approximately the same time as Chanel's but with a different aesthetic. While Chanel made simple floral rhinestone earrings for her clients, Shiaparelli's Dada-esque bracelets had a decidedly surreal bent, and her rhinestone chokers were packed with staggered rows of dangling hot pink lava-like stones.
In the United States, some of the earliest customers for rhinestones were costume jewelry designers such as Eisenberg, Trifari, and Hobe. These designers packed their rhinestones into tight, pave settings, which worked well with the overall sleekly angular Art Deco look of their creations...
Most American costume jewelry was made on the East Coast in Rhode Island and the New York City area, with stones imported from Swarovski and other European manufacturers. One important exception was Joseff of Hollywood, whose owner and designer, Eugene Joseff, crafted jewelry for "Gone With the Wind," "The Wizard of Oz," "Casablanca," and many other classic films. The key to Joseff’s success was a special setting that allowed rhinestones to better reflect studio lights on movie sets.
In fact, the silver screen had an enormous impact on the acceptance of rhinestones in the United States and around the world, as stars like Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford lent their swan-like necks to the rhinestone cause. After World War II, fashion accessories and jewelry grew bigger and bolder as housewives celebrated peace and prosperity with rhinestone brooches shaped like brilliant sapphire daisies and earrings dripping with countless bright, clustered stones.
Fashion designers also got on the rhinestone bandwagon. By the late 1940s, Christian Dior was draping his willowy models in chunky rhinestone necklaces, cuff bracelets, and fat cocktail rings, further legitimizing the brash trend.
In the 1950s, Dior was one of the first major buyers of Swarovski’s new aurora borealis rhinestones, which owed their otherworldly iridescence to a chemical salt that made their surfaces shimmer and gleam. Named after the Northern Lights, this coating offers an added bonus for collectors—the presence of aurora borealis rhinestones instantly dates a piece as post-1955.
By this time, most of the world’s costume jewelry was being made in America. Europeans routinely imported rhinestone shoe clips, brooches, and fur pins, or fluorescent blue beetle pendants made with aurora borealis rhinestones by an innovative designer named Weiss. Thus, exported Austrian stones often journeyed back and forth across the Atlantic before settling into jewelry boxes near their birthplace on the Rhine.