“Paste” is a trade term for leaded glass gemstones, usually created to imitate natural stones. Through the addition of certain metals, they can be produced in virtually any colour (even with colour-change properties such as saphiret), coated to enhance their lustre, and even painted (as in Black Dot paste). The ingredients are mixed together as a “wet” paste, to ensure an even distribution, giving the material its name.
From ancient civilisations to the turn of the 20th century, paste gemstones played a significant role in jewellery and adornment, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to excite collectors to this day. In ancient Egypt, paste gemstones were crafted from glass and other silicate materials to mimic natural gemstones such as turquoise and lapis lazuli. These exquisite creations - prized for the very fact they were human-made objects - would often adorn the garments and jewellery of the nobility. Zip forward to the 18th century, and one Georges-Frédéric Strass made it his life's work to perfect the art of glass imitation diamonds (white, or colourless, paste), ultimately achieving remarkable clarity and brilliance that could easily deceive the untrained eye.
From the court of Versailles to the grand ballrooms of Europe, these gemstones adorned the wealthy and powerful, shining brightly as status symbols - literally looking too good to be true.
The History of Paste
Paste gemstones date back to ancient Egypt (at least), where craftsmen began creating imitations of precious gemstones using glass and other materials. These early paste gemstones were used to adorn the garments and accessories of the elite, adding a touch of elegance and opulence to their attire.
Over time, the popularity of paste gemstones spread across Europe, with the aristocracy (including queen Elizabeth I) embracing them as symbols of sophistication and refinement. With a few periods of exception, paste games were also marketed as a more affordable alternative to natural gemstones - giving people access to a greater amount of bling than their budgets could necessarily afford.
The aforementioned G.F Strass's final technique, perfected around 1758, involved coating the glass with a high-lead-content material. This process creates a highly reflective surface that closely resembles the lustre of natural, faceted gemstones. It was the final piece in the puzzle, and strass pastes (as they're known in the trade) garnered a reputation for their exceptional clarity and sparkle. These stones were highly prized in their day, especially the ones simulating diamonds, and top-quality examples would often command as much, if not more, than the naturally occurring gemstones they sought to mimic.
The turn of the 20th century saw the decline of high quality paste gemstone production, with the advent of synthetic gemstone production. New technology developed and refined during the latter half of the 19th century allowed for the production of ‘lab-grown’ corundum (sapphire and ruby), spinel, emerald, and eventually diamond. Gemstones with the same mineral make-up as their naturally occurring cousins produced within the bowels of the earth's crust.
Types of Paste Gemstone
There are many types of paste gemstone, just as there are many gemstones to try and imitate, each with its own unique characteristics and allure. The most common type is glass paste, which is created by mixing glass with various trace elements, transition metals such as chromium, vanadium, and titanium, to achieve different colours, and lead to enhance the ‘fire’ and ‘brilliance’ (key in the imitation of diamond). The pinnacle of this type is the strass paste we covered earlier.
Cranberry Glass (aka Gold Ruby Glass) is a bright red, ruby-like stone made by introducing gold (salts or colloidal), to the molten glass mixture which gives it a bright red to reddish-purple colour. The origins of this technique are lost to history, but examples from as far back as the 4th century AD have been found - most notably a dichroic glass vessel of Roman origin that changes colour depending on whether light is reflected off it (green) or transmitted through it (red).
Saphiret is another unique and distinctive (and highly collectable) type of paste gemstone first created in the early 1900s by glass makers from the town of Gablonz, Czechoslovakia. The colour shimmers and morphs like nothing else, from peachy-orange to turquoise-blue - the effect is created during the manufacturing process, by adding molten gold to the blue glass mixture before it's allowed to cool. Real gold. Saphiret articles were produced here during the early decades of the 20th century.
Black Dot pastes were an 18th century invention designed to imitate white diamonds with the large open culets typical of stones from this era. Small black dots were literally painted on to the culet facet before the stones were set over foil.
Ceramics have also been used to replicate certain opaque stones such as turquoise and lapis, even opal (see Gilson during the latter half of the 20th century).
Myths and Misconceptions
There are several myths and misconceptions surrounding paste gemstones that have persisted throughout history. One common myth is that paste gemstones are of low quality or inferior to real gemstones. In reality, paste gemstones can be crafted to achieve exceptional clarity and brilliance, rivalling that of natural gemstones. But that's not really the point… as with the synthetic stones of the early 20th century, the fascination started with human mastery over nature; the ability to re-create some of nature's most beautiful marvels in the laboratory was impressive - to say the least. It's important to remember that the value of paste gemstones lies in their aesthetic appeal and historical significance, rather than their intrinsic value (in just the same way that a Georgian wedding band, for example, is worth far more than the weight of the gold).
Another misconception is that paste gemstones are not as valuable as real gemstones. While it is true that paste gemstones do not have the same intrinsic value as natural gemstones, their historical significance and aesthetic appeal make them highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. The value of paste gemstones lies in their craftsmanship and the stories they tell, rather than their monetary worth.
The Enduring Beauty of Paste Gemstones
Paste gemstones have a rich history and enduring allure that continues to captivate people today. From their humble beginnings in ancient Egypt to their popularity among the aristocracy in Europe, paste gemstones have left an indelible mark on the world of jewellery and adornment.
These imitations, crafted with skill and attention to detail, offer a glimpse into the world of luxury and opulence. Whether they are glass paste or strass, paste gemstones possess a remarkable clarity and brilliance that can easily deceive the untrained eye (something that has, no doubt, been ruthlessly exploited over the ages). Their affordability and versatility make them accessible… and that in itself is a feather in their proverbial cap.
So, the next time you come across a piece of jewellery adorned with paste gemstones, take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship and history behind these remarkable gems. Lives works have gone into them, countless lives Maybe they weren't forged deep within the bowels of the Earth… but they do possess a beauty and allure that has captivated (and/or deceived) for millenia.