Illusions vs. Reality in a World of Gems

New York Times, May 20, 2010

LONDON — In Guy de Maupassant’s 1884 story, “The Necklace,” a poor woman married to a lowly clerk borrows an elaborate diamond necklace for a fancy ball. She is devastated at the end of the night to realize that it has vanished. For a decade, she and her husband toil to pay off the enormous debt that they incur in buying a suitable replacement, only to discover that the necklace was paste — an artful but worthless glass used in imitation jewelry.

The themes that concerned Maupassant — reality, illusion and the murky borderland between them — have preoccupied jewelers ever since they and their clients first discovered that glass could be a convincing substitute for genuine gemstones. In ancient Rome, Pliny called it mendacio vitri, or “lying glass.” Little wonder that, throughout history, any discussion of gems has necessitated a mention of the potential for duplicity and deception.

“Brilliant Impressions: Antique Paste & Other Jewelry,” from June 15 to June 29 at S.J. Phillips, an antiques and silver dealer in London, is a charming, slyly subversive exhibition of 146 pieces of paste, “Vauxhall glass” and semiprecious jewels that tell the flip side of the story: How women with more style than means adorned themselves in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

“Each of these pieces that has survived is by no means run-of-the-mill,” said Diana Scarisbrick, a world-renowned jewelry historian who wrote the exhibition’s catalogue — to which Anna Wintour, editor in chief of American Vogue, provided a foreword.

“The majority of the pieces are from the 18th century, a very high point in jewelry design, and the pieces are set the same as you’d find with beautiful diamonds,” Mrs. Scarisbrick said.

Mostly sourced from an anonymous English collector, the false jewels in the exhibition attest to a tradition of craftsmanship and beauty to rival that of the genuine jewels from which they took their inspiration. They offer a powerful testament to the timelessness of certain styles of adornment, in particular, those that offer substantial looks at modest prices.

Many of the pieces in the exhibition would be indistinguishable from today’s statement jewels, including a Carmen Miranda-esque pair of girandole pink and white paste earrings that date to the early 18th century, and a dramatic bib necklace of bullet-shaped beads composed of French jet, the black glass version of the organic gem that once littered the shores of Whitby, in north-eastern England.

At their best, the pieces in the show feel pregnant with history, as with a late 18th century aigrette, or plume-like ornament, composed of chrysoberyl and tawny topaz discovered during Portugal’s mid-century foray into the mineral-rich Brazilian interior. At £20,000, or about $29,000, the aigrette, designed as a headdress decoration, is the exhibition’s most expensive piece. The oldest is a cluster pendant of rose-cut rock crystal dating to 1670.

“It’s the first exhibition of its type and quality that’s been done,” said Francis Norton, a director of S.J. Phillips.

The novelty of an exhibition devoted to imitation jewelry is, in and of itself, surprising, given the category’s enduring popularity. Call it rhinestone, crystal or strass (after Georg Friedrich Strass, the Alsatian jeweler who first coated glass with metal powder to simulate the look of diamonds), but faux jewelry has no shortage of contemporary devotees.

Mrs. Scarisbrick, however, is skeptical that anything produced today can rival the quality of antique paste, which was made during an era when the labor required to fashion top-notch settings was as cheap as the raw materials.

“It’s a vanished world,” Mrs. Scarisbrick said. “It’s discrete, refined and totally charming.”

And let’s not forget intact — unlike the genuine jewels of the past, the intrinsic worth of which made them vulnerable to being dismantled.

“The paste pieces survive because they weren’t worth breaking up,” Mrs. Scarisbrick said. “They’re witnesses to a great period in jewelry design.”