Georgian Paste Jewelry
Imagine, it's early in the 18th-century and all the latest diamond-studded jewels are coming in from France. You stare at them longingly and think to yourself, how in the world could I ever afford so many diamonds? Well, the answer is, you wouldn't have needed to - by the 1730s, paste had arrived on the scene. Replicating the brilliance of diamonds often at a fraction of a cost, pastes became hugely popular in Georgian jewelry. These weren't just cheap diamond imitations, mind you, they soon became sought after in their own right. Being more malleable than tough diamonds, jewelers could do imaginative and intricate things with paste that they never could have pulled off with diamonds, all while sparkling just as brightly.
A Georgian necklace with a cross pendant, made from leaves and stylized flowerheads set with brilliant-cut pastes in silver, backed with gold, England, c.1810
What Is Paste?
Paste is, essentially, glass - a material that has been used to imitate gemstones for thousands of years. More specifically though, Georgian paste is a highly reflective kind of hand-cut glass that has been hand-polished with metal powder until it gleams brilliantly.
In 1674, an English glassmaker called George Ravenscroft created a new kind of glass to try and imitate the appearance of diamonds, with a higher lead oxide content meaning it had a higher Refractive Index (RI) than before. Although the material was clearly more brilliant, his creation wasn't all that successful, as it was still very soft and didn't stand up well to cutting or polishing. For that reason paste, as we know it in its glorious Georgian incarnation, didn't really become popular until the 1730s, when Georges-Frédéric Strass added an even higher content of lead to glass. This made the material stronger so that it could handle the pressure of high polish, opening up the possibilities of what could be achieved with paste. Strass, having moved from Strasbourg to Paris a decade earlier, became jeweler to the King Louis XV of France in 1734, and particularly fine-quality paste jewelry was sometimes known as 'Strass'.
A pair of closed-back silver earrings set with green and colorless pastes, English, c.1760
Georgian paste earrings, each designed with a pear-shaped cluster drop with a bow center and circular cluster top, mounted in silver, English, c.1760. From Simon Teakle via The Jewellery Editor
Boxed ribbon tie choker in silver and paste with bow and drop, c.1770
A Georgian-era pendant with pastes set in silver, decorated with enameled gold enclosing a depiction of wheat sheaves in gold wire, and with a suspension loop in the form of a bow. Wheat sheaves (a symbol of fertility and prosperity) are repeated in hair on the reverse of the pendant, Swiss, c.1790
Ornamental pin in the form of a spray of flowers. Silver with a closed-back and set with brilliantly colored red, blue, yellow, and green foil-backed pastes, English, c.1750-1800
Late 18th-century brooch with a pendant. Pastes set in silver-gilt in the form of a shell, the pendant with a suspension loop in the form of a bow, made in Western Europe
A pair of earrings with symmetrical bows, characteristic of neo-classical Portuguese design of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They form part of a demi-parure - a half set of jewels. The stones are a mix of white topaz and paste, set in silver to enhance their whiteness, Portuguese, c.1780-1800
Late 18th-century finger-ring with a broad flat hoop. Gold set with rose and calibré-cut pastes in an oval
Late 18th-century brooch in the form of a harp surmounted by a crown. Made in silver and set with pastes
Late 18th Century paste hoop earrings
Georgian paste pendant in a crowned oval shape with a carved micro scene depicting The Battle of The Nile, set over a foiled background, with a chunky beveled crystal face, c.1798
Georgian drop earrings fashioned in silver with a large teardrop-shaped gallery, encrusted with old-cut, foil-backed pastes that sparkle like diamonds, c.1800
Magnificent highest quality white paste pansy necklace with oversized pendant drop all set in silver and backed in gold, c.1800. From Georgian Jewellery by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings
The Popularity of Paste
Despite the lower price of such imitation jewelry appealing mostly to the less wealthy upper classes, paste jewelry became an art form in itself and was therefore also very popular in high society and amongst royalty. Many believe that because it was softer than diamond, it was harder to work with, and therefore required more skill. Some pieces are so fine and bear so much rich history that they have even sold at auctions for higher prices than their diamond counterparts. With the origin of paste-making being in Paris, high-quality paste jewelry was even worn by the likes of Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette. Paste was used in everything from men's shoe buckles, to the most magnificent of tiaras. Soon after it became popular in France, the fashion spread to England, Spain, Portugal, and beyond, attracting a great many people for both its beauty and its price.
Paste jewelry also served a more practical purpose for some of the nobility. When traveling at night between estates, house parties, or the properties of various family members, wealthy women were often fearful of being robbed of their most precious jewels or family heirlooms. Instead of forgoing wearing jewelry altogether, they would have replicas of their expensive jewels made in paste, so they could still show them off at the ballrooms without worrying too much if they got pinched on the way.
Paste jewelry would remain popular all through the Georgian era, into the Victorian era, and even for a time after that. That said, 18th-century Georgian paste is usually of a higher quality than 19th-century Victorian pieces. This is partly due to the political climate of the time, but mostly because earlier pieces would likely have been made by a single jeweler who dedicated themselves to the craft and highly valued the material. Later pieces of paste jewelry tended to be set in less refined mounts and were often mass-produced.
In 1777 the government introduced a tax on paste glass. All though not as valuable as gemstones, these jewels remain important historically because while much real diamond jewelry was broken up over the decades, to be remade and reset in the latest fashions, paste jewelry has often survived intact, in its original form, and is therefore a valuable indicator of changing fashions.
Aigrette in the form of a crescent and trembler spray. Silver and set with pastes, c.1790-1810
A comb with 33 teeth and decorated with oval and round 'Stras' pastes, arranged in flowers of increasing size towards the center, with a pattern of leaves and stems with smaller stones, c.1804 - 1815
A jewel in the form of a flower, set with brilliant-cut pastes in silver and colored gold, England, c.1810-20
Silver and white paste tiara, c.1820
Georgian foil-backed paste brooch, set in silver with a sinuous floral design, with the larger pastes set in typical Georgian crimped collet style. From Corvidae Antique via Ruby Lane
Georgian paste earrings, which most likely started out life as waistcoat buttons, foiled and pavé set, closed-back in silver. Pie-shaped pastes have been placed in the center around a small round paste, and a surround of 18 round-cut pastes line the perimeter. From The Three Graces via The Jewellery Editor
Early 19th-century pendant miniature of a lady under glass in a gold frame with foil-backed pastes in silver claw settings. The reverse is engraved. Brooch pin
Two rare Georgian paste eternity rings, possibly worn as ‘keepers’ on either side of the wedding band
Part of a silver openwork pendant set with facetted clear pastes, made in Bruges (Belgium), c.1800-1870
A gold ring set with one large rose-cut white paste, with three smaller rose-cut white pastes on either side in closed settings, arranged like a trefoil, Italy, c.1800-1860. This shape is called 'a fiocco' in Italy because of its resemblance to a bow, and the cut and settings are typical of traditional Italian rings from the 19th century, particularly those worn in the area around Rome
Georgian paste jewelry pieces from @vintage_jewelry_hoarder via Instagram
While colored gemstones like garnet, topaz, emerald, and ruby were abundant in Georgian daytime jewelry, the evening was dominated by diamonds and pastes that glittered dramatically under candlelight. They were often showcased as big stones delicately linked together in a rivière necklace (river of light), shimmering around the neck.
Georgian foil-backed colorless paste rivière necklace in silver, each accented with a painted black dot to simulate a culet, with minimal spacing between each link, c.1830
Georgian foil-backed rivière necklace in silver and 14k yellow gold, each paste accented with a painted black dot to simulate a culet, with minimal spacing between each link, c.1830
Often, paste gems are set using a method called 'foiling', where they are backed in foil or colored foil to add depth, shine, or hue to the clear glass. When done well, under candlelight it was almost impossible to tell the difference between paste jewelry and jewelry made from real gemstones. Diamonds and gemstones were also often foiled so this added another level of imitation to paste, where the light would reflect and bounce around the stone in much the same way as the real counterparts. By backing paste in different colors - brilliant red for ruby, green for emerald, pink foil beneath a milky blue glass for opal - any kind of gemstone could be replicated. Colored foil was also used with real gemstones to enhance their color and make, say, a citrine look more like a topaz.
A Georgian necklace of faceted opaline and colorless pastes, set in silver, made in France, c.1740-50
A necklet with blue and white pastes set in silver floral openwork and with a pendant dove. Fitted with loops for ribbon ties. French, c.1760. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A French necklace of sliver, hinged panels, set with colorless and opaline pastes, c.1760. Before Australian opals became accessible they were very rare, so here opal is replicated by pink foil beneath milky blue glass. This necklace would have been worn close around the neck like a choker
A necklace of opaline (a variety of paste imitating opal) and white pastes set in silver, with rosettes alternating with leaf devices and a pendant with bow and drop, possibly French, c.1760
©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Large foiled blue paste stomacher set in gold, c.1770
Both are pieces with opaline and colorless pastes set in silver. Left: a jewel in the form of flowers held by a bow, English, c.1770. Right: A bracelet clasp made in Western Europe, c.1790-1800
©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Mens' paste shoe buckles with an inner gold rim, the pastes set in silver, worn by Admiral Sir Rupert George, c.1780 - 1790. Knee buckles of pastes set in silver, early 19th century
A selection of fine emerald pastes set in gold, c.1800
An early 19th-century memorial ring, set with amethyst pastes and a neo-classical funeral urn on a white enamel background. Inscribed behind GEO/ NASSAU/ ARM/ OB:18. AUG 1823/ AET: 66. The ring commemorates George Richard Savage Nassau (1756-1823), a country gentleman and book collector from Suffolk. His library, described as 'choice, curious and valuable', contained over 1600 important seventeenth and eighteenth-century books when it was sold at auction in 1824
Georgian paste from skilled craftsmen often had a black dot painted on the culet – the tip at the bottom of the gem. This helps give the paste a greater illusion of depth and is a mark of careful craftsmanship.
Georgian pendant in silver and gold with an 8.5ct amethyst and black dot pastes
Portuguese Georgian-era black dot paste brooch, crafted from sterling silver settings with 12ct gold scalloped details, the pastes backed in peach-colored foils
A silver girandole earring with three pear-shaped drops hanging from a floral spray below a disc. The front of each element is entirely covered with white pastes of varying shapes and sizes, in closed settings, with a black spot painted on the cullet of each, Spanish, c.1800-1860
Another material used to simulate diamonds in 18th-century jewelry was rock crystal - a natural, colorless quartz distinguishable from paste by being harder and colder. There were also specific kinds of rock crystal known according to where they were from, such as 'Bristowes', which were rose-cut rock crystals from Bristol, used to great effect in English and Flemish jewelry. Rock crystal was often used in exactly the same kind of jewelry as pastes, since they look so similar and both simulate the brilliance of diamonds. In fact, many pieces of jewelry use both rock crystal and paste in the same piece.
Silver and rock crystal pendeloque earrings, c.1780
Brooch of rock crystal set in gold and silver, made in Western Europe, c.1760-70
A bodice ornament composed of a bow and a symmetrical arrangement of flowers. The large colored stones are golden-yellow topaz, sometimes described as 'sherry topaz'. The colorless stones are a mixture of colorless topaz and rock crystal. Possibly made in Portugal, c.1770
Pendant of rock crystal set in silver openwork with flower sprays, probably made in France, c.1750-1800
Necklace of brilliant-cut rock crystals set in silver, backed with gold and decorated with leaf and bud pendants, France, c.1790-1805. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London