Paste or Real? It doesn't matter!
If you hear "paste jewelry", do you think ugly knockoff or, worse, Elmer's glue? Paste jewelry was popular among Georgian society and was never considered cheap costume pieces. They were designed and desired for their own sake---not as a gemstone substitute---and not only for being affordable or for those who feared highway men while they traveled. A woman in Georgian England wouldn't have been embarrassed to wear paste because she wasn't even trying to fool anyone.
Paste is an imitation stone made from hand-faceted, hand-cut, metal-polished, high-lead content glass. Got that? The lead oxide content gives the stones a higher refractive index than other glass or crystal---it disperses more light. (Rock crystal has a RI of 1.5, paste stones around 1.8, and diamonds are 2.4).
Paste stones were perfected in the 1730s by jeweler George Frédéric Strass who became jeweler to King Louis XV, and paste was popularized by French aristocrats.
The technology to cut and polish diamonds the way we can now didn't exist in the Georgian era. Stones had to be cut around the shape they were found. Given its hardness and expensive price, this meant that diamonds came in mostly oval and oblong shapes.
But glass is softer and can be cut and polished into any shape, and the stones can be shaped to fit tightly together in a setting, with very little metal showing between stones at all.
The setting and shapes of paste stones could be more creative than the styles for real stones. The same jewelers who worked with fine gemstones also worked with paste, and its unique properties gave craftsman the chance to produce pieces they wouldn't otherwise have been able to create with gemstones.
Paste stones usually had a black dot painted on the center a the back to simulate a culet---the tip at the bottom of a gem. This gives the stone more depth. They were backed in either clear or hand-tinted foil to make the stone look colored. Paste stones were created in hues that were not found in nature.
It can be hard to find Georgian-era original paste stones now. On one hand, since they were not real they were less likely to have been converted as styles changed. But paste is softer and more fragile than fine gemstones. After over two-hundred years of use, they tend to have more scratches and chipped facets, and were less likely to be replaced.
Those who wore paste stones in the Georgian era weren't trying to pass off a substitute for the real thing. They were wearing unique pieces that had as much artistic value as their fine gemstone counterparts.
Would you wear paste jewelry?
Georgian Jewellery. Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings. 2018