NEW YORK – Rhinestones are named for Rhine stones, sparkly, highly coveted rock crystals found along Europe’s Rhine River. They date from the early 1700s, when Georg Friedrich Strass devised a method of backing faceted glass crystals with metal powder. As a result, light, instead of passing through their facets directly, refracted into brilliant rainbow spectrums.
His individually cut, hand-finished pieces, also known as Strass and diamantes, were marketed as “poor men’s diamonds.” Nonetheless, many well-to-dos, fearing that their precious jewels would be lost or stolen, often commissioned rhinestone replicas to wear while traveling or attending public events. Since hand faceting and molding rhinestones was laborious, these faux ornaments were often as costly as their originals.
As jewelry became simpler, smaller and more elegant, colored rhinestones, created by backing clear stones with metallic foil in a variety of shades, became the height of fashion. Their shimmering, transparent shades, known as turquoise, sapphire or ruby-rhinestones, for example, reflect the gems they simulate. Colorful chokers, bracelets and brooches, featuring romantic floral motifs, were also charmers.
In the late 1890s, as pieces became more extravagant, Daniel Swarovski, son of a Bohemian gem cutter, invented a water-powered machine that mechanically cut and faceted lead crystal faster, more precisely and affordably than before. Since each facet breaks reflected light into a striking rainbowed fragment, the more facets, the more flash. When their lead percentage was increased, Swarovski’s multifaceted creations grew flashier still. Indeed, due to their multiple, consistent facets and exceptional brilliance, many consider vintage Swarovski rhinestone pieces to be top of the line. Marked or signed ones in prime condition are doubly desirable.
At the turn of the century, when garnet or pearl petit point edgings adorned delicate diamonds, scores wore versions with less costly rhinestones. Some, instead, preferred romantic winged, whirled, or feathered bow hearts, bow knots, or floral spray brooches. Others flaunted showy, multihued, rhinestone frogs, dragonflies, swans, snails, peacocks or tortoises.
Rhinestones came into their own, however, in the 1920s, when white-on-whites, say diamonds or white topaz on platinum, were the cat’s meow. Coco Chanel, parting from tradition, championed rhinestones not as diamond wannabes, but as glamourous, cutting-edge glories worn day or night. In time, glittery, mass-produced rhinestone earrings, hat pins, shoe clips and evening bags were available not only in exclusive shops, but also at five-and-dimes.
During the Great Depression, whimsical, brightly hued rhinestone flower, bird and butterfly brooches brightened the gloom. In addition, dazzling dress clips, hair clips and necklaces, inspired by Hollywood glitz and glam, made simple outfits look like a million.
Through the following years, American manufacturers such as Coro, Haskell and Trifari, produced fine, detailed pieces of rhinestone costume jewelry, many with imported Swarovski stones. Exquisite, highly detailed Eisenberg & Sons dress clips, snowflakes and swirling bows were also popular. After World War II, when jewelry styles grew big and bold, many earrings, chokers and brooches bloomed with large-stone, razzle-dazzle rhinestone floral clusters. Others depicted birds, bows, snakes, scrolls or ribbons.
In the mid-1950s, the Swarovski company introduced a new type of stone featuring clear glass crystals coated with micro-thin layers of vaporized blue metal. These extraordinary jewels, illuminated by bursts of colorful, otherworldly lights against pale-blue grounds, are known as Aurora Borealis (AB). Since they also reflect hues of nearby fabrics, they caused a sensation. Christian Dior, in fact, embellished scores of his signature evening gowns with them. Furthermore, when his exclusive rights expired, other famed designers, like Elsa Schiaparelli, quickly secured them.
A vintage rhinestone creation is not only an unabashed fashion statement. It’s also a flash from the past.