During the 18th century, brilliant pieces of colorful rock crystal, or glass, were discovered along the Rhine River in Austria. While working with these pebble-like formations, an Alsatian jeweler by the name of Georg Friedrich Strass discovered that using a mixture of thallium and bismuth improved the refractive qualities of the rock, and once cut and finished, they resembled a diamond. Through further experimentation he found that the use of metal salts could alter their colors. He didn’t stop there, however. In an effort to improve the brilliance of these simulated gemstones, he glued metal foil behind them, which was later replaced with a mirror type coating.
By the year 1734, Strass’ popularity had grown for his ‘imitation diamonds’ and colored gemstones (which he called rhinestones, after the Rhine). This recognition earned him the title of “King’s Jeweler” and his work was in great demand by King Louis XV of France, an honor which gave him the competitive edge over the artificial gem market. Aside from jewelry settings, rhinestones were affixed to and worn as opulent shoe buckles by both men and women at that time.
In Austria during the late 1800's, Daniel Swarovski revolutionized the world of jewelry with his invention of a new glass-cutting machine. He also created vacuum plating with silver and gold for the backs of the stones. Swarovski also discovered that using a higher lead content produced gems with a much higher light refraction. These discoveries lent the artificial gems a more sophisticated and polished appearance. Use of his new faceting machine allowed the gems to be mechanically cut and faceted in a fraction of the time it took by hand. The production of rhinestones increased significantly.
Today, rhinestones are used in a multitude of settings. Not just for jewelry anymore, these little crystals have added fire and dazzle to home products and decor, stage and movie costumes, dancewear, hair clips, everyday apparel and accessories. Some famous folks associated with wearing costumes designed with rhinestones are pianist Liberace, actor/singer Elvis Presley, and country music legend Porter Wagner. In 1975 singer Glen Campbell became known for his song, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” which was later the basis for the movie starring Sylvester Stallone.
Shown above is a Victorian belt buckle full of rhinestones.