Paste Gems: It’s the Real Thing (Almost!)

The majority of what crosses my desk everyday as I catalog artifacts are items that would be difficult, if not impossible, to ascribe to any one person who lived on the land we call Ferry Farm. Architectural debris (brick, mortar, plaster, nails), food remains (oyster shell, animal and fish bones, eggshells (!)), broken household objects (glass bottles, wineglasses, dinner plates, storage crocks), and modern garbage (plastic – so much of it!), when found on site, are all interesting artifacts in and of themselves and can answer specific research questions. At the same time, they all attest to the mundane, collective aspects of everyday life on a farm that has been occupied off and on for over 250 years.  Every once in a while, however, an artifact is caught in the field sifting screen or the lab wash bucket that puts a smile on your face and causes you to excitedly announce to the rest of the crew, “Look what I found – a gem!” Then, you think “I wonder who it belonged to?”

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An oval, faceted red paste gem that probably came from a piece of jewelry. (SF 1947)

Gemstones and jewelry are definitely exciting finds on any archaeological site, but at Ferry Farm we are more likely to find bits of jewelry and clothing fasteners decorated with imitation or “paste” gems.  Paste gems are molten leaded glass pressed into gem-like molds and then polished to look like the real thing.  With the better quality pastes, the facets could even be cut and polished.  They were available in any color imaginable by adding metallic oxides during their manufacture. Their color could also be enhanced or changed by attaching colored foils to the undersides of the gem.   Paste gems were usually set in closed, versus open-backed, settings to protect the foil backing from tarnishing.

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This colorless paste gem is cut in a style similar to the “brilliant cut,” a popular diamond cut during the 18th century, and would have been set in a closed setting for either a piece of jewelry, a button, or a buckle. (SF 1948)

The use of paste gems was popular from the 17th through the early 19th centuries because they were so versatile and economical. Pastes were available in a wide selection of colors that imitated any precious or semi-precious gemstone.  Because they were created in molds, they also came in a multitude of sizes and shapes, such as circles, triangles, squares, octagons and hexagons.  The jeweler could then cut the gems to fit together in closely-set arrangements not always possible with real stones.  Improvements in the quality of the glass during the 18th century heralded gems with added brilliance and allowed greater flexibility in cutting and using the paste stones in detailed settings. Despite being imitations, pastes were highly desired in and of themselves by both the middle class and the wealthy.

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Three similar rectangular faceted gems in blue and green. (SFs 212, 215, 230)

Just like real stones, paste gems were set in all kinds of jewelry and items of personal adornment worn by both men and women.  Necklaces, brooches, rings, bracelets, and earrings were all decorated with paste gems.  Clothing fasteners, such as buckles, buttons, sleeve buttons, were also set with pastes.  Buckles used to fasten a wide variety of clothing articles, such as hats, shoes, girdles, stocks, and gloves, were very fashionable items to be set with paste gems.  One advantage of using pastes over real stones is that it was certainly easier to replace a lost buckle set with pastes than one set with real diamonds!

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Pair of man’s steel and gilt wire shoe buckles, England, circa 1777-1785. Public domain. Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art / Costume Council Fund / Wikipedia

Paste gems found at Ferry Farm have come in a range of colors – green, red, pink, aqua, blue, black, and colorless – as well as shapes.  Figure (SF#1947) is an oval, faceted red paste gem that probably came from a piece of jewelry.  Figure (SF# 212, 215, 230) shows three similar rectangular faceted gems in blue and green.  The colorless paste gem in Figure (SF#1948), cut in a style similar to the “brilliant cut,” a popular diamond cut during the 18th century, would have been set in a closed setting for either a piece of jewelry, a button, or a buckle.

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Sleeve button with its colorless glass inset. (SF 234)

Sometimes the paste gem is still found within its setting, such as the sleeve button with its colorless glass inset seen above (SF#234) but, more often than not, finding a paste gem in its original, complete setting is a rare occurrence. Figure (SF#1971) is a fragment of a copper alloy shoe buckle with two empty settings for paste gems.

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Fragment of a copper alloy shoe buckle with two empty settings for paste gems. (SF 1971)

Who did these gems and their settings belong to?  Distinctive style changes in gem shapes and jewelry settings help establish when certain pieces were in fashion.  Knowing changes in clothing fashions through time and recognizing when certain types of clothing fasteners, such as shoe buckles and sleeve buttons, were popular also help us focus our research.   We can assume that whoever was sporting these gems was trying to be stylish and fashionable in their time by adding a little “bling” and glitter to their wardrobe.  For as long as people have been traditionally adorning themselves with real gemstones in jewelry, there has always been that goal to create comparable imitations to swap out the real thing.  These special artifacts found at Ferry Farm are a reflection of these stylistic changes.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Pointon, Marcia. Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones & Jewelry.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

White, Carolyn. American Artifacts of Personal Adornment, 1680-1820. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2005.

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