Rhinestones: All That Glitters

Originally, rhinestone referred to rock crystal, the clear variety of quartz, obtained from the Rhine River. According to some sources, in the late 18th century, an Alsatian jeweler, George Frederic Strass, developed a method of coating the pavilions of the stones with a metallic powder, which made them more reflective and brilliant, and a better imitation of diamond. Other accounts credit Strass (or Stras) with the introduction of a lead glass for use in jewelry. Today, the term rhinestone has a wider usage, and is used to describe any glass stones, with or without a metallic backing.

Glass used in imitation of natural stones is an ancient concept. The first glass was probably made in the Eastern Mediterranean, thousands of years ago. Glass was used in jewelry by the Egyptian and Mycenaean cultures. Roman craftsmen invented numerous techniques and methods of production for glass, which revolutionized the industry. Unfortunately, most of these techniques and methods were lost during the Dark Ages including how to produce clear glass. It was not until the 14th century that this technique was rediscovered. Venice and Milan were also known for their glass work, which included glass stones for jewelry.

The term paste is often used to describe the stones of this period. Most pastes of this period were normally set with a foil backing. The foil backing was easily damaged, so setting styles were used that covered and protected the backs of the stones. Foil backing was also used on many genuine stones, at least until improved stone cutting methods were developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Clear glass lacked the brilliance to serve as a good diamond substitute, until the process of producing a glass with a high lead content was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The 18th century was probably the high point of foil backed paste jewelry.

When open backed settings for diamonds became popular in the 19th century, paste fell out of favor. Mirror foiling was developed by mid century, which allowed a mercury amalgam to be applied to the backs of stones. This produced a more durable backing than the traditional foil methods.

Glass stones could be produced by molding or by cutting. One of the great developments in glass stones occurred in the late 19th century, when Daniel Swarovski patented an automated cutting machine which allowed production of these gems in larger quantities then ever before, and at lower costs. The company that bears his name continues today, and is renowned for their high quality crystal pieces. They use a full leaded crystal in their production. The company is also credited with development in 1955 of the famous Aurora Borealis (AB) finish – a metallic reflective coating that produces a rainbow of colors.

It is acceptable to use the term rhinestone in reference to any faceted glass stone, whether it has a coated back or a clear back. Since many glass gems are made as imitations of natural gems, they are often described using color terms which are also the names of these natural gems. When using terms like emerald or amethyst to describe the color of glass or a rhinestone, you should always clarify that it is emerald color glass or amethyst colored rhinestone. Phrases such as emerald glass and amethyst rhinestone are confusing to shoppers and search engines, and are unacceptable.

Cleaning rhinestones is risky especially for foil backed glass is even tougher. The items should NEVER be immersed in liquid. A dry, soft brush, such as an infant’s toothbrush with soft bristles or a dry Q-tip, is the best tool to start with. If this does not do the trick, a mild cleanser or soapy water may be lightly applied to a brush or Q-tip, which may then be used for further cleaning. Brushes should not be used on some special finishes, such as the AB finish, because the coatings are delicate and easily scratched.

No article about rhinestones would be complete without a tip of the ten-gallon hat to the original Rhinestone Cowboy, the late Nudie Cohn. The Ukrainian-born Cohn gained fame with his rhinestone-covered outfits, worn by musical luminaries such as Elvis, Liberace, Hank Williams, Roy Rogers, and Gram Parsons. Nudie’s family carries on this tradition today.


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