In Praise of Glass

I’m a sucker for the real thing, and sometimes the real thing is glass. Though it’s manmade, glass is as ‘natural’ as any other gem, being based on silica (silicon dioxide, or quartz), the main component of sand. Melting sand into glass, and adding traces of other minerals to produce various colors, is not only advanced technology, it’s high art. What kind of jewelry lover would I be if I turned up my nose at something so beautiful?

Peking glass necklace fashioned in the 60s from something much grander

The necklace at right and at the top of this post was my mother’s. She was told it was Peking glass, and it is, but there’s a larger story.

The techniques of modern glassmaking were brought to China by Jesuit missionaries, who were responsible for a lot of cultural cross-pollination. The first glassworks opened in the Forbidden City in Peking (now Beijing) in the 1660s, and the Jesuits were soon sending abroad for chemicals to color the glass in new ways. At first, glass was used to imitate precious materials like white jade and lapis lazuli, but before long, the glassworks produced all kinds of exquisite colors and effects.

I’m getting to my mother’s necklace. Around the same time, in the late 1650s, the emperor became a follower of Chan Buddhism. Legend has it that he received a string of Tibetan prayer beads (called a mala) from the fifth Dalai Lama, and that those beads were the basis for an elaborate piece of jewelry called a Mandarin Court Necklace. Qing emperors wore them, and so did all the hundreds of men and women in the imperial court. These necklaces had 108 beads divided into three sections, plus four shorter strands that dangled in back and functioned as counterweights. The materials and colors of the beads indicated the rank of the wearer.

A Mandarin Court Necklace in carnelian, turquoise and coral (I think). If you see one of these on eBay and it’s affordable, it’s not the real thing but a cheap modern copy.

I have a strong suspicion that my mother’s necklace was made from a court necklace. The giveaway: the three dangly beads, which are the type commonly used at the ends of the shorter, dangling strands. Mother’s beads were originally decorated with blue Kingfisher feathers, a popular embellishment at the imperial court. A bit of feather is still visible on one of them. There used to be more, but it all crumbled to dust.

 A bit of blue Kingfisher feather is still visible on the metal setting of one bead.

One online source indicates that pink and blue were colors of high rank, but who knows? The beads are just glass—not jade, or coral, or pearl. All I can say with reasonable certainty is that they were made before 1911, when the Quing Dynasty ended.

I own another piece of historic glass, though it’s not the least bit imperial. It was probably made in Czechoslovakia, the source of many of the world’s glass beads, but it wound up in a Navajo silver ring. I spotted it in a gallery in Santa Fe and thought: this isn’t turquoise, but whatever it is, I like it.

Navajo silver ring set with Hubbell glass

It turned out to be Hubbell glass, named for John Lorenzo Hubbell, who ran a famous trading post near Ganado, Arizona starting in 1878. The Navajos had returned to Ganado after being exiled to New Mexico by the U.S. government, and trading posts like Hubbell’s were their connection to the goods of the outside world. Besides flour, sugar, coffee and tobacco, the posts offered glass beads like the one in the ring at left, made in about 1910. This piece of glass didn’t necessarily come from Hubbell’s post; all such glass is called Hubbell glass now, and it’s very collectible. But I bought it because I like looking at it.

That’s really it: I call myself a collector, but I’m actually a magpie who can’t resist shiny, colorful things. My nest is full of them. I once bought a brooch with very good rhinestones—Czech, most likely—because I loved the way they sparkle, even though I rarely wear brooches. Yes, it’s paste (which is jewelry parlance for cut glass, often with a foil backing), but paste can be a beautiful thing.

Victorian rhinestone brooch. Don’t ask me what the metal is, but it’s not gold, and the stones are genuine glass. Gorgeous, aren’t they?

And quite recently—within the past month—I paid real-jewelry money for a ring with a stone I knew was fake. It was sold to me as glass, because the store was closing and the proprietor didn’t know what it was and wasn’t willing to have it tested. I think it’s not glass. But it’s not “real” either. Here’s the ring:

Enameled gold Art Deco ring, set with—what??

It’s clearly Art Deco, with enameling that puts it in the 1920s or 30s. The setting looks like 14K gold to me, though it’s unmarked. The nicely cut stone is blue with flashes of purple. It’s way too big to be real. I think it’s a simulated alexandrite, a lab-grown stone that’s been around for at least a hundred years.

Very short lesson: simulated alexandrite bears no relation to real alexandrite, a rare and costly beryl that changes from red to green under different lights. Simulated alexandrite flashes from blue to purple. It’s made of lab-grown corundum (sapphire) laced with the element vanadium to produce the purple flash. A gemologist could confirm that it’s the stone in my ring. But being a magpie, I’d rather just keep looking at it.

4 thoughts on “In Praise of Glass

  1. Thanks, Marcia! You may be right about the court necklace parts of the drops in the necklace.Both the glass and especially the metal caps resemble the real thing, which is so exciting.As to the rest of the beads being Peking Glass? I too am a collector of Peking Glass, though I have not posted anything lately. Love your passion!!! Do you wear a lot of black? I just came across 25mm Shou carved Chinese Jet beads that are so super dramatic black and would make a great Choker. I am still unpacking from my gallery’s old inventory. Will you blog about jade? Have a great weekend! atara


  2. What a pleasure to have met one of my finest clients on eBay. What an eye! what refreshing curiosity and passion to learn about jewelry! And let’s not forget the humor that wraps it all up in a neat package.
    Honored to be one of your designers.
    Keep it up!


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