Is it a Diamond, or is it Paste? by Diana Oaks

Is it a Diamond, or is it Paste? by Diana Oaks

I must make a confession in order to broach today’s topic. It’s a difficult thing to admit because I initially promised myself I wouldn’t do it. After weeks of adamant resistance, however, curiosity overcame my objections. Yep. I watched the Bridgerton series on Netflix. This program will never win an award for historical accuracy. Its best described as one enormous anachronism garnished with a rainbow of Regency-adjacent eye candy.  (Warning: there are spoilers ahead.)

There was a lovely gemstone theme woven through the eight episodes of Season 2. The initial reference was a carry-over from season one, where the queen selects one of the young women who have come out into society as the “diamond” of the season. The complete phrase introduced in Season 1 is “diamond of the first water.” In the world of gemstones, this phrase is a reference to quality, with a watery, transparent clarity denoting the best diamonds.  In Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte is personally invested in her “diamond” achieving a triumphant marriage, having staked her own reputation in her declaration. Her choice is clearly risky with little being known of the newcomer, who has just arrived in England from India. Even the “diamond” doesn’t know, however, that her social debut is based on a fragile and ultimately false pretense.

Prudence Featherington is cluelessly used to model the glass gemstones.

A second facet of the gemstone theme is introduced with another new arrival, this one from America. As a distant cousin who inherited a title and estate upon the death of the baron Featherington. The new heir quickly discovers that his new position brings nothing but debt and a household of women. Upon his arrival, he presented himself as the wealthy owner of gemstone mines in America and uses that fiction, aided by Lady Featherington, to defraud gullible aristocrats with an investment scam, baited by exquisite jewelry made of glass.

One does have to suspend disbelief to a degree with this storyline, as any competent jeweler would detect the nature of the “stones”, but it’s a fun premise and aligns nicely with the historical art form of French paste jewelry.  Glass has been used to emulate gemstones for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1730s when Georges-Frédéric Strass discovered that by adding more lead oxide to the glass, he could create a crystal that not only could be beautifully faceted but also would withstand an aggressive polishing process. This came close to replicating the brilliance of actual diamonds since the higher lead content also increased the refractive quality.  Adding a foil backing, usually silver, further increased the refraction. For this reason, most paste gems are found in settings with closed backs on them, to protect and hide the foil.

Georgian French Paste necklace. Image from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In order to ensure uniformity in the glass, the elements used to make it were first mixed into a wet paste before heating it into crystal stones, which is where the term “paste” comes from. As with glass, pigments can be added to imbue color into the paste.  Red or green glass is created with chromium compounds, while cobalt is added for blue. Gold and selenium will also produce red, while iron is used for shades of yellow to green. Purple shades are made with manganese. Paste jewelry was popular, not just in lower classes, but among the nobility and even royalty, as evidenced by Strass being elevated to a jeweler to King Louis XV of France a few years after his discovery.

French paste ring with colored stones.

In the Bridgerton scene depicted above, Prudence Featherington exclaims that the necklace is heavy, which is the only hint among those who are not knowledgeable about the scheme that the stones are paste, and not legitimate gems, as the extra lead used in the paste formula makes it heavier than either glass or naturally occuring gemstones.

Shards of broken glass scattered on the table after being struck with the butt of a knife.

The metaphor expands to include something false being substituted for something precious when the match between the “diamond,” Edwina Sharma, and the viscount, Anthony Featherington, shatters like glass at the altar when Edwina realizes that the groom is in love with her sister. This symbolism is literally illustrated in the final episode when Colin Bridgerton shatters the glass stones in one of the Featherington necklaces.

The use of jewelry to symbolize aspects of a relationship was also used by Jane Austen, notably in Mansfield Park, when Fanny’s brother William gave her a pretty amber cross pendant from Sicily, and Mary Crawford and Edmund each give her chains, requiring her to choose between the two.

Although the anachronisms in Bridgerton are glaring, and the storylines are but faint echoes of Austen’s brilliant work, I can appreciate the truth in this particular theme. Authenticity in objects, people, and relationships is a beautiful and precious thing. I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please take a moment to comment below.

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April 8, 2022 7:00 AM

I watched this season and didn’t even think about these parallels but now it seems so obvious. Thank you for sharing.

Caryl Kane
Caryl Kane
April 7, 2022 1:56 PM

Diana, Thank you for sharing this fascinating post!

John Smith
John Smith
April 6, 2022 7:24 AM

I didn’t know that’s how the term “paste” came to be.

I believe that backing real diamonds with silver was the rule, since that was considered the best way to show off diamonds’ brilliance. Even if the rest of the necklace or other piece of jewelry was gold, the part around and backing the diamond(s) was silver.

And you could collect individual diamonds of different sizes over time, each set in silver with a closed back and crimped silver sides (a collet or “collar” setting), and then once you’d collected enough you could use them to form a riviere necklace. I think that’s how the Queen of England’s was formed, created for Queen Victoria (?) using diamonds collected by George IV (?). Rather like an add-a-bead necklace.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
April 4, 2022 7:00 PM

I don’t know much about diamonds and probably couldn’t tell paste from the real thing at all!lol It looks like paste doesn’t sparkle as much as real ones. Interesting post though.

Riana Everly
April 4, 2022 9:39 AM

That’s a fabulous metaphor. I haven’t seen the series since we don’t have Netflix, but the snippets I’ve seen look like fun, if nothing else.
I have to admit that I’m drawn to the overall appearance of a piece of jewellery more than to its official value, and one of my favourite pieces is all paste.
But there is also something to the depth of a genuine stone. I have my grandmother’s engagement ring, and I can spend ages just staring at the diamond.

J. W. Garrett.
J. W. Garrett.
April 4, 2022 9:12 AM

I love the commercial… “Their price, 30-thousand dollars… your price, twenty dollars.” It then goes on to say even expert jewelers admire its quality. I laugh every time. I suppose I am of the generation of the CZ [cubic zirconia] jewelry. You can’t walk near a jewelry counter without them being on little tables near the counter but not inside the locked and secured counters. LOL! You can tell immediately which are real and which are not. I have to be careful of what I wear as it will turn my skin green. I apparently react to the nickel in the ring or necklace.

I didn’t watch the adaptation of Sanditon and I doubt I’ll watch Bridgerton. I didn’t read the books back in the day and don’t intend to when I have so much JAFF at my fingertips.

This was a delightful post. You have given me the reasons behind the meaning of those terms. Excellent. I like gaining new knowledge. I shall not judge you on your viewing preferences. You are safe with me. Blessings.

April 4, 2022 4:49 AM

I’ve seen some very pretty paste jewellery and I do like the necklace shown above. I’m obviously against someone claiming it as the real thing to make money though. I haven’t watched Bridgerton yet although I’ve seen several clips and think I might.

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