August 13 2010
Lucia van der Post
I’ve always loved paste jewellery. The fact that the “stones” are made of glass has never, in my view, detracted from the charm of these pieces, which cost infinitely less than precious stones. And of course the fact that they are more affordable makes them so much more wearable. Not such a worry if you should lose them, not such a risk of looking showy or of being robbed.
And the good news is that suddenly paste jewellery is fashionable again. SJ Phillips recently held a charming exhibition of some 100 pieces of paste jewellery and it has sponsored a catalogue on the subject written by jewellery historian Diana Scarisbrick. Much of the resurrection of interest has been encouraged by the sight of Anna Wintour in the film The September Issue. She had simple paste necklaces in a wide range of colours, one to suit almost every outfit, and, since it was high summer when the magazine was being put to bed, they were shown slung around the simplest of summer dresses, looking just as good as against a silky couture blouse.
Diana Scarisbrick tells us that the fashion for these pieces is part of a tradition that goes back centuries. In its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries the very rich used to have paste copies made of their real jewellery which they would wear for travelling. Eminently practical. It was the glassmakers of Bohemia, Venice and Paris who produced the glass that made the paste jewellery so desirable and all the great jewellers sold paste pieces alongside the precious ones.
It seems that even royalty – Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Anne, the wife of James I, the first Duchess of Marlborough and Henri IV of France – owned pieces. Meanwhile, Queen magazine, in 1869, put the case for “sham” jewellery: “If the profession or career of the husband requires that his wife should go much into society on a small income, she would be perfectly justified in wearing imitations to save money… it cannot be wrong for a lady who cannot afford and has not inherited them to wear a moderate amount of paste.” The article added that she should not give the impression that her “jewels” were of any value.
As the techniques for producing the glass improved (a certain George Ravenscroft perfected the formula for making colourless glass and greatly improved its optical properties), so the designs became better and these coloured stones were set like real jewels in beautifully designed necklaces, crosses, earrings, rings and bracelets. Quite a guessing game emerged that amused high society – were they real or were they not?
The best source today of these pieces is antique shops. At SJ Phillips paste jewellery is one of its specialities and there’s always a selection, with prices starting at £500 and going up to about £25,000 for the most exceptional pieces. No surprise then to discover that Anna Wintour is a great fan of SJ Phillips, where many of those hotly desirable necklaces were bought. Bonhams regularly has pieces for sale in its Knightsbridge auction rooms and at its branch in Oxford, though last time I tried to bid for a necklace, which had an estimate of £600-£800, it went for more than £10,000.
First picture shows pink and white paste Girandole earrings from SJ Phillips’ June exhibition; probably French, early 18th century. Second picture: enamel, seed pearl and paste brooch, C1900, sold earlier this year by Bonhams for £1,140.
The next Bonhams sales are on September 7 (Oxford) and September 15 (Knightsbridge).