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A Long Timeline For Fake Jewellery


2,000 Years Of Popularity Enjoyed By Imitation Gems

The Iron Crown of LombardyWhenever you take part in the spirited bidding for one of our Jewellery lots you can enjoy the unconditional assurance that TimeLines vetting staff examined the piece with forensic thoroughness before describing it fully on our catalogue pages. We think of our experts as followers in the footsteps of Gaius Plinius Secundus; better known to us today as Pliny the Elder; who earned international renown for his encyclopaedic work, Natural History. In it he gave us the first records of mineralogical scratch tests to detect fake gems, knowing that diamond, the most highly valued gem in the 1st century A.D. Roman world, scratched all other minerals. Pliny also wrote about carved gems, listing the major intaglio stones as: agate, amethyst, carnelian, emerald, garnet, jasper, turquoise, and others, with carnelian heading the popularity list. He observed that seals carved into semi-precious stones found a ready market among patricians, especially officials, who used them to secure private papers against unauthorized opening. Customers who could not afford semi-precious stones made-do with glass imitations. Writing about those poorer users, Pliny called their less expensive intaglios Plebian ring-stones. He explained the popularity of the imitations among poorer wearers as demonstrating their belief in the apotropaic powers of coloured glass; or in the curative properties of glass when worn in rings; or in the expectation that good fortune would befall those who bought the imitations ….

Throughout the next two thousand years marginally improving social change gradually expanded demand for what became known as costume jewellery, with makers using cheaper metal alloys, and substituting pressed or moulded coloured glass pastes for natural stones. At the same time, wealthier families, eager to ensure that their jewellery reflected their status and differed markedly from mass produced wares, purchased increasingly ostentatious pieces. In Britain the 20th century dawned with the crowning of a new monarch (Edward VII) and a national obsession with royal regalia. Newspapers across the nation carried features about jewellery – genuine and fake. Here is a typical column from the Leamington Spa Courier, in June 1904 by one of its reporters who had visited Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Its headline read:


The lapidary was splitting a diamond; his miniature cutter mimicking an angry wasp as shining dust arose around his hands. Then, suddenly, everything stilled, and the gem split into two halves. “Out of one diamond”, he said, “I shall make two; and each will be as large and as brilliant as the original. As he scraped up the glittering dust, he explained: “First, I will make, in paste, exact duplicates of each of these halves. Then I will join the bottom of each genuine half to its paste complement, making the joint so carefully that no-one will perceive it. Finally, I will mount these half fake/half genuine stones .. and their paste foundations will not detract in any way from their brilliance.”

Later in the day he talked some more about the jewellery business: “Fake jewels make interesting subjects for study. Do you know what the best fake pearls are made from? Fish scales! Silvery, iridescent scales pasted on the insides of balls of glass. In England that fish species is known as the bleak. Each bleak is smaller than a minnow; and its scales must be picked off by hand. Eighteen thousand scales are needed to make one pound in weight of imitation pearl paste.”

A few months later (November 1905) the Lichfield Mercury, encouraging its readers to join a Christmas train excursion to London, had some advice about visiting the Tower of London:

No doubt your jaw might drop when you gaze upon the Crown Jewels. But keep in mind that many of the gems on display are imitations. That Koh-i-noor Diamond is paste; the real stone being kept at the King's bankers. [..] It used to be the custom to have the crowns of queen consorts, and their sceptres, made of baser metal that those of the king, and set with paste jewels. When you look at the beautiful Queen's Crown made for Mary of Modena, you will be gazing at a crown shining with cut crystal glass, set in silver; and its other jewels are imitation pearls. So, too, the sceptre made for Mary of Modena. Its cost, set down in the Jewel Book, was £60, though it blazes with gems. [..]

The famous "Old Sceptre" which was found in the wainscotting of the jewel-house in 1814. is also set with imitation stones. It looks a thing of beauty and value; but the stones which glitter in it are all paste. Throughout the Jewel Room, the real and the spurious are mixed up together, and casual observers cannot tell the difference. In fact, the crowns and sceptres set with paste often receive more admiration than those decorated with the real gems.

Aware that many of our potential bidders, both in the auction room, and online, come from overseas, we shall end with a Continental example of a royal crown with several imitation jewels: The Iron Crown of Lombardy: According to tradition, St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, ordered the creation of the crown for her son. Its original design reputedly incorporated an iron nail from the True Cross, which Helena had discovered during her travels in the Holy Land. Pope Gregory the Great presented the gold crown to Theodelinda, princess of the Lombards, as a diplomatic gift. Theodelinda then donated it to a church at Monza, Italy in A.D. 628. It is presently displayed in Monza Cathedral. The twenty-two gems in its design include seven garnets, seven sapphires, four amethysts .. and four imitation gems made from paste.

Aaron Hammond (Chief Operating Officer), TimeLine Auctions, 16th January 2024