Paste is the name given to an extremely heavy variety of flint glass which imitates the characteristics of precious gems. The art of producing paste stone gems is extremely involved, and has been practised since ancient times, with each successive generation of jewellers improving upon the method and experimenting with the way in which these stones are set into the jewellery of the age.
In the modern day we often think of glass jewels as cheap, mass produced counterfeits of true gemstones, but in the times before industrialisation the crafting of paste stone jewellery was every bit as elaborate an art form as the rest of the jeweller’s craft.
Although paste jewellery had been produced since ancient times it was during the height of the Roman empire that many of the techniques used in later eras were arguably perfected. The vast resources which could be drawn from all corners of the empire gave the Roman people access to larger numbers of precious stones, but this led to an increase in demand that could not be met.
Roman jewellers turned to paste stone to satisfy the population, in much the same way that the creation of Pinchbeck in the early 18th century was intended to provide a gold substitute to those who could not afford it. It was this that allowed the wearing of jewellery to become more widespread outside of royalty and nobility – a trend that continued in different forms in the centuries to come.
Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Paste
Although the techniques required to make fine paste jewellery were transmitted to the British Isles by the Romans it would take many years for the British Empire to reach a size where the same factors came into play.
The Georgian period marked the beginning of a time of tremendous wealth and prosperity for the British people, and an influx of gemstones from the various territories around the world. Once again the people were exposed to a larger number of true precious stones, which led to a higher demand for less prohibitively expensive gems.
The jewellers of the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras treated paste stones with the same care and attention with which they handled true gemstones. They created elaborate designs featuring expert metalwork which allowed them to bring out the best in these stones.
Creation and Uses
Paste stones are so named because they are mixed wet to ensure that their colour is even and uniform. The silica-based mixture is combined with other elements to create colours in much the same way that natural gemstones acquire their colour. For example, Emeralds are beryl with traces of chromium that have blended deep within the earth over thousands of years. Paste stones with the same vibrant hue as an emerald can be created by adding chromium to the mix prior to cooling and hardening.
Cheap, modern glass jewellery is mass produced, and is usually pressed into the shape that is required before cooling occurs. Such stones will often have soft edges in place of the clean, crisp angled faces of a true gemstone. They may also contain air bubbles, which clearly mark the stones as poor quality imitations.
When a skilled jeweller is working with paste stone they will treat it in much the same way that they would treat a true gemstone. The hardened mixture will not be pressed into shape, instead being cut as a lapidary would with a diamond, or whichever stone the paste is intended to imitate. This means that exactly the same skillset, tools and patience have to be applied to the creation of the stone and explains the difference in both quality and price between conventional glass and paste glass.
At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we have decades of experience in the identification and acquisition of paste stone pieces from the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras. To take a look at the discoveries we have made why not view our full collection of paste pieces here
Interested in learning more about antique jewellery? Check out our helpful Advice Centre for more information.