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Paste Gems

One of the most thrilling artifacts to uncover at a site is a paste gem and in the last two seasons at the Overseer’s we have found six.

Paste gems are imitation jewels, or rhinestones, made by pouring melted glass into gem shaped molds to mimic real gemstones. They could be made in any size and shape. The color of the glass could be altered by adding metal oxides. With these techniques, there were countless possibilities when it came to imitation jewels. Partly their flexibility and versatility, partly their low production cost, paste gems were—and still remain—a popular alternative to genuine jewels.

They were used in all types of jewelry. They also were used to decorate buttons, cufflinks, all sorts of buckles, and more. They were easier and cheaper to produce and purchase than real gemstones and were therefore purchased by all sorts of people. Even wealthy individuals may have opted for paste gems rather than the real deal. Paste gems were easier to replace if they were damaged or lost and some jewelers even preferred them because they were easier to use, allowing for greater flexibility in design and styling.

At Montpelier, archaeologists have recovered many paste gems at various sites throughout the property.

The South Yard

Across the South Yard, almost a dozen paste gems were discovered in contexts directly related to the enslaved community meaning they would have likely once belonged to enslaved individuals. A cufflink, pictured on the left, is from the North Dwelling. A colorless rectangular paste gem is set in a copper alloy setting and the profile of a bearded man’s face is visible through the glass. This artifact may be mimicking a popular style of gem engraving known as intaglio, similar to cameo. Cameo style jewelry often features a person’s silhouette in profile and was made extremely popular by England’s Queen Victoria in the late 1800s.

A second paste gem, pictured on the right, is green glass in a copper setting, was found in the South Kitchen. Its green color is reminiscent of an emerald, one of the most valuable gemstones for over 5000 years. Emeralds could be difficult to shape and cut because they were a very brittle stone. Green paste gems may have been a practical and more affordable alternative.

The Pine Alley

This paste gem was recovered from the Pine Alley in 2018 by expeditioner Erik Arneson. Molded with the British royal coat of arms, this colorless circular paste gem is a “bobbin topper”—the branded decorative cap of a spool of thread dating to the early 1900s. Arneson was able to identify it thanks to the molded lettering that spells out “I. P. CLARKE PATENT.” This is a perfect example of how paste gem usage extended beyond what we consider “personal adornment.”

The East Woods

This paste gem, purple glass set in a piece of jewelry, was recovered by metal detectorist Dennis Bjorklund while conducting survey in Montpelier’s East Woods. Finding paste gems with their setting intact is rare, as glass is much more durable and likely to survive in soil than metal, which can rust and deteriorate. Most settings recovered at Montpelier have been some type of copper alloy.

The Overseer’s Site

At the Overseer’s site, we have found six paste gems which all likely belonged to individuals that at one point lived there, be that the overseer himself or his family. During an expedition last fall, we found three of them in a single day!

This light blue paste gem is shaped similarly to a “brilliant cut” diamond, a style that was popular in the 18th century. Perhaps a little misleading, the “cut” of a gemstone doesn’t refer to its shape but its polish, proportions, and symmetry. The process of cutting a gem stone was a highly complex and skilled endeavor that depended greatly on the shape, purity, and composition of the raw stone, the tools available to the artisan, and the artisan’s expertise. Being able to easily pour melted glass into a mold turned this involved process into a single step.

This circular paste gem on the top was found still in its original copper setting, whil this dark blue paste gem on the bottom was molded into an intricate floral and six-pointed star design. Its flat back suggests that it was housed in a setting and likely decorated some type of button. This is an  example of an intricate design that would have been impossible to achieve with a real gemstone.

Two were recovered from the same unit and same strata, suggesting they were lost or discarded at the same time. One was still housed in its copper setting with a type of back that indicates it was worn as a cufflink. Its twin had a molded floral design on its back that would have been visible through the gem. Sometimes, to further enhance the color of the glass, colored foil would have been pressed between the back of the gem and its setting.

The third is larger than the other two and was found a few units away. Altogether, these three gems could have been a part of a matching set of buttons.

What Paste Gems Can Tell Us

Not only are paste gems amazing artifacts to see peeking up at you through the dirt, they can tell archaeologists a lot about the person who owned them. Because they are considered personal adornment items, things that an individual would have worn on their body, they speak to the individual sartorial preferences of that person. By connecting the cut and style of paste gems to the timeline of when certain types were most popular, archaeologists can get a sense of the trends individuals followed and more importantly when that individual might have been wearing that particular piece.

Imagine your favorite piece of jewelry, your favorite watch. The stories they contain: who gave them to you, where you got them, where you’ve worn them, if you’ve ever lost or broken a particularly important piece. Paste gems could have once been those important pieces for the people who owned them, who wore them, who lost them. Finding them, over two hundred years later, gives archaeologists a window into the lives of the individuals they belonged to.