Rhinestone Rococo: Inexpensive Modern Jewelry for Historical Costumes

October 9, 2013

A Princess’s Jewels for a Pauper’s Price
Diamonds are forever, but Rhinestones won’t make you wait that long!

Elizabeth of Russia by Eriksen, circa 1740-50

Browsing my ever-beloved eBay for wedding supplies earlier this year, I stumbled across one of the ubiquitous Chinese vendors that have flooded the jewelry category. I was looking for inexpensive little brooches to put in my bridal bouquet and this particular seller had what I needed. After checking out, eBay handily recommends similar items, often from the seller’s shop. Normally, I don’t take notice, and was about to close the page since rhinestones and I have a love-hate relationship.

Then I saw this:


Bridal Flower Brooch from freebee2009 on eBay

Which reminded me of these:

Diamond Stomacher Brooch by Garrard, 19th century

Paste Bodice Ornament/Stomacher, circa 1760
“Very sophisticated imitation jewellery was made in Europe in the 18th century, and it was sold by many of the leading jewellers.” V&A
Never feel guilty about wearing fake stones. Our ancestors did it all the time. If anything, you should feel rather clever. A penny saved is a penny earned!

These long brooches are called “stomachers” (or the slightly more utilitarian “bodice ornaments”) and were a popular form of jewelry for the rich and famous from the 17th century until the early 20th century. They are long, large, and luxurious: made to make a statement! They were created not as just accessories, but as a focal point. In the 17th and 18th centuries, stomacher brooches were often affixed to the functional cloth stomacher of a gown, hence their name. During the Edwardian era, the fashion for stomacher jewels rose again.

Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone – Coronation of George V, circa 1911
Wowza! So much hotness even a giant stomacher brooch can’t compete!

Stomacher brooches are heavy pieces and usually require plenty of support. Antique gowns usually had supportive boning and were fitted over a sturdy corset so the brooch wouldn’t droop, but when the corset went out of fashion, so did stomacher brooches. However, Queen Elizabeth II wore one of her grandmother’s stomacher brooches to her Golden Jubilee in 2002, and since then, stomacher brooches have been on the rise once again. The emerging fashion for extremely elaborate weddings (and their accompanying fitted gowns and glittery jewelry) has helped the revival a great deal as well, a trend showcased by the selection of giant brooches this particular shop is selling.

Here are a few more fabulous stomacher-style brooches from the same shop:


Bridal Flower Brooch by freebee2009 on eBay


Bridal “Flower” Brooch  by freebee2009 on eBay
Many of the bow-shaped pins in this shop are mislabeled as “flowers” or called “bowknots.” This one reminds me of this bodice ornament at the V&A.

These brooches are practically begging to be added to a robe de cour, and if I had a robe de cour, these would be on the front of it right now!

French Robe de Cour with a Stomacher Jewel, Lace, and Fur
According to LACMA, this is a 19th/20th century copy of an 18th century engraving. Yeah, it’s complicated.

A “real” stomacher brooch usually rings up in thousands of dollars, but most of these brooches are under $20! There are plenty of Edwardian options to choose from, too. One of my favorites is this beauty:


Rose Flower Brooch with Black Rhinestone Crystals by freebee2009 on eBay
Christmas present ideas? I think so!
*nudge nudge* *wink wink*

When I first saw this brooch, I got the feeling I had seen it somewhere before. Then it dawned on me that this brooch is almost an exact replica of one of the most famous brooches ever designed– The Tudor Rose:

“The Tudor Rose” brooch made by Theodore Fester, circa 1855
Designed as a large sculpted rose blossom, entirely decorated by old European, old mine and rose-cut diamonds, mounted in silver-topped gold, circa 1855, in a red leather fitted case. According historical documents, the brooch is said to contain, 2,637 brilliants totallying 136 carats and 860 small rose cuts diamonds of unknown weight.

This brooch was originally created for Princess Mathilde and eventually was purchased by the famous Vanderbilt family. You can read the whole story on the auction page. Can you image how stunning all those diamonds much have looked on a 19th century princess’s and a 20th century socialite’s gowns? All those diamonds are positively dazzling! The Chinese brooch is very obviously attempting to copy the look of this lavish piece, and it may not be as fine or fancy, but at less than 1% of the other’s cost, I’m not going to fuss about it!

These glittering faux jewels aren’t made for those times when you’re costuming your average Georgian or Edwardian lady. Rhinestones can’t hold a candle to a real piece of gemstone jewelry, but that doesn’t mean you have to shun them altogether. Rhinestones are for those times when you throw modesty to the wind and go for broke (without going broke)! Playing Marie Antoinette? Costuming Queen Sophia? Going to a grand ball? Enjoying a night of old-fashioned fancy dress? Just like the glitz and glamour? RHINESTONE TIME!

Hobby Lobby has glass rhinestone buckles in plenty of sizes and shapes (for under $5. Perfect for an Edwardian sash or as a Georgian shoe buckle!

Rhinestones have a bad reputation in the costuming world, mostly because we are so inundated with them in our day to day lives. We see them everywhere– a child’s earrings, cheap slap bracelets, sunglasses, dripping off lampshades, coating prom dresses, purses, the infamous holiday pin– but rhinestones were not always this abundant. Their forbears were paste stones made of glass. Though cheaper than some real gemstones, glass paste stones were originally cut by hand. Until mechanization took over, a paste brooch could cost as much as a natural rock crystal brooch.

18th Century Paste Earrings from The Three Graces, circa 1770
It’s often difficult to tell paste stones from real ones. Test your identification skills by playing “The Maupassant Game: Is it Real or Paste?

Another factor in the rhinestone’s ill reputation is that many people wear them nonchalantly. Since they are so common, it is had to think of life without them, but even more difficult is finding a piece of jewelry without them. As a general rule, most costumers avoid using rhinestones at all, preferring cabochon stones, cameos, or no stones at all for their jewels. Sadder still is the royal impersonation that shuns jewelry altogether! Our rich ancestors loved glitter and gaudy excess as much as we do. Even though we’re drowning in rhinestones, our modern tastes are generally plainer than the people of old. Back then, if you could wear diamonds, you did. If you couldn’t wear diamonds, you wore paste. If you were too poor for either, you dreamed of wearing them. All of them. At once.

“Portrait of Russian Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great)” by Alexei Antropov, 18th century
Wait, I’m sorry. Could you repeat that? I couldn’t hear you over the sound of my diamonds glistening…

Hints for Wearing Rhinestones with Historical Dresses:

  • Suitable for 18th century and later. Faceted rhinestones are not recommended for Renaissance costuming, but cabochons are. If a piece of costume jewelry has only a few small rhinestones, I replace them with small faux pearls.
  • Georgian jewelry is often symmetrical and stylized. Look for dangles, bows, and oval shapes. A popular style was the girandole: three pendants suspended from a larger one (the link just says earrings, but pendants and brooches followed this form as well).
  • Victorian and Edwardian jewelry is often more  asymmetrical (though wearing of antique pieces was popular) and naturalistic. Many Georgian-esque pieces can be used with Edwardian gowns, but not always vice versa.
  • Curving flowers sprays were popular beginning in the Regency/Napoleonic era, especially as turban ornaments.
  • Pavé is never passé and has been popular since the 18th century.
  • Wear large rhinestone pieces only with court or ball gowns. Though there may be some high society ladies who wore diamonds all the time, a smart lady would not pair a giant corsage with a utilitarian riding habit.
  • While the shoulder and center-front are “safe” bets for wearing a brooch, other fashionable places include: on a sash, at your hip, on a hat, in your hair, or on a muff.

Alexandra of Denmark Princess of Wales, later Queen consort of the United Kingdom, circa 1881
Alexandra was famous for all of her jewelry. She would wear four or five necklaces at once, pin brooches to every spare inch of her dress, and crown it all with a tiara.

  • Choose rhinestones in silver settings. 18th century diamonds were usually set in silver-topped gold to enhance the icy glitter of small rose cuts and Edwardians preferred silvery platinum. Rhinestones in yellow gold settings are more Victorian, but it is challenge finding a goldtone piece that actually looks like gold. Warmly colored stones like orange or red, however, usually look best in gold settings.
  • If the bright shine of modern rhinestones is a little too glittery, tone them down by applying a little clear, matte nail polish or acrylic varnish. You can also “antique” them with paint to mimic age, wear, or oxidation.
  • Choose color carefully. Multi-color pieces are historically correct, but modern rhinestones are usually too intensely colored to look natural. However, pairing a single color with clear stones is both historically correct and much less jarring than a rainbow piece. Ruby red, sapphire blue, emerald green, and citrine yellow rhinestones are classics when paired with clear stones. Aurora borealis (AB) or iridescent rhinestones were not used before the 20th century, so avoid pieces that have special finishes on them. You can also alter the color of clear stones by applying a light, transparent layer of colored nail polish to the tops. A dark, vampy red color works especially well, as does a dark green. Black rhinestones are excellent for Victorian mourning and half-mourning outfits.

Topaz and Rock Crystal Bodice Ornament, circa 1770
Large rhinestones are perfectly acceptable as long as they are a central focus point!

If you are concerned about ethical labor and environmental issues, Chinese sellers like those on eBay may not be your first choice. Instead, try browsing vintage shops both online and in town. There you can find both inexpensive original pieces from the Edwardian era or revival pieces. Style revivals– including classical and Victorian movement– occur all the time. There was even a revival of Renaissance style in the 19th century, but these pieces are now antiques and worth a great deal– so not a good source of budget-minded costume jewelry! The 1950s saw a surge in “Renaissance” style and “Classical” style which can yield good 18th century pieces. The 1970s saw a surge in “Renaissance” and “Victorian” styling. If you are crafty, you can always raid your local Hobby Lobby and make your own!

3 Responses to “Rhinestone Rococo: Inexpensive Modern Jewelry for Historical Costumes”

  1. Rebecca Richie Says:

    Thanks for the informative article! I love my bling but always am worried that it will destroy the historical accuracy I’m going for. So excited to try out the nail polish tip.

  2. Dixie Says:

    Now I’m trying to figure out if I take a chance on shipping from Hong Kong arriving to me before Halloween. My 1875 ball gown needs something the camouflage where my hooks and eyes gap a little bit. This is a great article, thank you!!!

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