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.
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.
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.
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.
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.