In the aristocratic classes of 17th century Europe, particularly the taste-making rococo Parisians, fine jewelry made of precious gemstones like diamonds and emeralds was flaunted and coveted. These stones were treasured for their beauty as much as their relative rarity—it was this rarity that prompted jewellers to seek out an equally beautiful, but less expensive, alternative material for their creations.
In 1724, French jewel designer Georges Frédéric Strass came up with “paste,” a kind of leaded glass that he cut and polished with metal powder until it appeared to shimmer like a diamond in the light. These white “diamante” or “strass” were a hit with glamorous Parisian high society.
During the Victorian Era, non-precious pastes were a part of a tasteful lady’s evening jewelry sets. They were also used in pieces intended to convey coded messages of romance, based on the colors of the pastes. Toward the end of the era, Austrian jeweler Daniel Swarovski introduced the first cut-glass crystals that successfully imitated the look of diamonds. While glass is not a rare material, the level of artistry and craftsmanship that went into his crystals made them appropriate for fine-jewelry settings of gold and sterling silver.
Swarovski crystals, which were made of high-lead-content glass and have a permanent foil backing, gave the illusion of almost any rare gem, including diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. In 1892, Swarovski patented a mechanical glass cutter so his crystals could be mass-produced to meet the high demand.
In 1895, Swarovski moved his family business, originally located in the Gablonz area of Bohemia, to Austria near the Rhine River—which is how pastes and crystals became known as “rhinestones.” As such, they were treasured by Belle Époque and Edwardian socialites alike, and used in elegant, swirling Art Nouveau designs.
The term “costume jewelry” didn’t become a part of popular vernacular until the 20th century. During the Art Deco period in the 1920s, Parisian couture designers like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli adopted pastes, crystals, and other rhinestones to make high-fashion statement pieces with huge faux gems. These pieces looked so fabulous, socialites and Hollywood stars alike simply had to have them.
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