Faking it.

Anne here, bringing you the post on fake jewelry I promised you a few blogs ago.

For years I've read stories where the family jewels had been replaced with imitations, usually by some spendthrift chap or a secret gambler. And the dowager declares in sorrow, or outrage, or horror, or in confidence, depending on the plot, "Paste my dear, nothing but paste."

I don't know what I thought paste was. I took the word fairly literally, and imagined some kind of paste that when hardened, looked like pearls, or jewels of some kind. Somewhere in the unexamined bowels of my mind there was a connection between these fakes and the paste we used at school — a kind of glue, but we called called paste. (Photos above and  below courtesy of The Three Graces)

PastebroochI imagined layers of some clever and mysterious substance, built up until it had depth and brilliance or at least lustre. I was sure that in some versions, fish scales were used to achieve the latter effect — I must have read that somewhere, I expect in Georgette Heyer. Clearly, going by my fiction reading, there were grades of paste — some were good imitations and could fool all but an expert, others were visible at a glance.

But it wasn't until I was writing my most recent book that I actually thought to research it.  (Yes, there are paste jewels in this story, but it's not a big part of the plot, so I'm not giving anything important away.) I don't know why I didn't look it up before — I even had a paste tiara in one of my books but it never occurred to me to research it before now.

Elizabeth_dress_2So, let us start with faking pearls. Pearls have always been popular. Queen Elizabeth the first, the Virgin Queen,  had a particular passion for them, not simply because they were pretty, but because they were also symbolic of purity. As you can see from this portrait, she wasn't subtle about getting her message across. Pearls galore.

In the early-mid 1600's, pearls blossomed in popularity throughout fashionable Europe, not simply worn as necklaces and other items of jewelry, but sewn onto clothing and even shoes as an adornment, and to be up there in the fashion stakes, you needed to wear masses of pearls. And the bigger the better.


But pearls were madly expensive — the art/science of cultured pearls was unknown until the 20th century, and pearls were both rare, and exotic, coming from far flung parts of the world. Only kings and queens and a few mega-rich could afford masses of real pearls, so the race was on to produce faux pearls that would fool everyone. Because one needed to appear richly dressed, even if one couldn't afford it—perhaps especially if one couldn't afford it — appearances, then as now, were crucial to social success.

In the 17th century, a man called Jaquin of Paris patented a method of faking pearls. He made tiny glass balls that were hollow inside, filled them with wax to strengthen them and give them the right kind of weight, then lacquered them with a compound made of ground-up iridescent fish scales. His method was so successful that Paris became the centre for the production of fake pearls for more than 200 years.

However, that's not paste. Even though these pearls were made of pasted-on fish scales, paste as a term for jewelry, has nothing to do with faking pearls. Simply speaking, paste jewelry is leaded glass cut and faceted to resemble gems or precious stones, like rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds and the like. Even opals could be faked with this method. 

Paste is not the only way of faking precious stones — techniques of enhancing the appearance of genuine stones have long been in place — dyeing, waxing or smoking lesser-quality stones to enhance their color, fusing stones together to make composite stones.

Paste is a compound of glass containing white lead oxide and potash. The mixture of lead and glass makes the compound highly reflective. These pieces are cut — the variety of shapes possible is much more varied than in real gemstones — then the back is coated with a metal coating that enhances the brilliance and sometimes a colored foil that creates the color, like the paste "emeralds" above. (Photo used with permission)

FrenchcombThe eighteenth century marked the beginning of what has been called "The Age of Paste." Shoe buckles and hair adornments made of ornate paste, steel and tin were fashionable for many years. The shoes wore out but the buckles were removable. Even paste was quite expensive, so you didn't want to lose your buckles.

Jewelled buttons (of paste) were also fashionable. And of course paste jewels were used for all kinds of jewelry — necklaces, tiaras, brooches, bracelets — you name it. (Above left is a French comb, circa 1840; below paste buttons. Photos courtesy of The Three Graces)

Once again the centre of faking it with paste gems was Paris — and the finest producer was Georges Strass. In fact some people still call paste jewelry "Strass jewelry." As the industrial revolution took off, however, the production of fake jewelry spread to the UK, to London and Birmingham, where they used steel for the settings of marcasite and cameos, particularly Jasperware, which was produced by Wedgewood Potteries to look like ancient cameo glass. Cameos became all the rage after Napoleon wore a cameo decorated crown for his coronation.

Interestingly, much of this early paste jewelry has lasted intact longer than some of the genuine articles, which was broken up and the stones reset into more modern styles.

The demand for paste continued to increase into the nineteenth and twentieth century and still remains popular, today. I know I had huge fun choosing a variety of paste items to wear when I went to the Romance Writers of Australia costume party dripping with "diamonds" — which as we all know, are a girl's best friend — even many years on. 😉

So what about you — Do you have any paste jewelry? Can you recall a book that contains some reference to paste jewellery? Or tell us about your favorite piece of jewellery — antique, real or paste, or a sentimental favorite.