Every sort of material was used for buckles, the most common being copper alloy and gold-colored pinchbeck. Most fashionable were sterling silver buckles. 18th century trade cards and advertisements show that many jewelers and silversmiths specialized in shoe buckles. During the 1720s, shoe buckles began to get larger, and continued to increase in size until the late 1780s. From the 1740s buckles began to be seen with real and paste stones. Though diamond shoe buckles were worn (a beautiful pair can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London), it was a rare extravagance. Other materials came to be used in imitation of the brilliant sparkle of diamonds, most especially facet-cut polished steel, marcasite, and paste. All buckles in this collection are set with paste stones.
Paste, which is a heavy high-lead glass, is more easily cut and shaped than diamonds, and could be close-set without the visual intrusion of metal settings, creating a mass of sparkling brilliance. They could be cut and set into any shape or size. This necessitated a higher degree of setting expertise, and paste craftsmen were often more highly skilled than those working with diamonds. (See figure 3) 18th century paste is always foil backed, which increases the brightness and sometimes provides color. The settings must be air-tight to prevent corrosion to the foil, which can cloud the brilliance and ruin the stone. The foil backs acted as mirrors, significantly increasing luminosity. Sparkle was the chief concern.
The 18th century attitude toward paste was not the disdain of later periods. Paste was appreciated on its own merits, and was not intended to simulate or counterfeit diamonds. Good paste jewelry was worn in the highest circles. Some of the most exclusive jewelers, even those with royal warrants, advertised paste jewelry. The demand for paste was so great that the government decided to tax it. The Glass Excise Act of 1777 created a levy on "all Paste Glass, 18s 8d for every cwt."
By the 1790s shoe buckles were falling out of use, surviving for the next few decades only in ceremonial and Court dress. By 1791, it is reported that 20,000 buckle makers were out of work in Birmingham. The change in fashion was a reflection of the significant social and political changes taking place. One of the cries of the French Revolution was, "Down with the aristocratic shoe buckle!" In 1789, members of the National Assembly in France ceremoniously removed their silver and jeweled shoe buckles and gave them over to the cause of the Revolution.
Other types of buckles also followed the general jewelry trends evident in shoe buckles. There were buckles for dresses and hats and gloves. Knee buckles were especially popular. (See figure 8) In 1711, The Spectator reported a new fashion: "a pair of silver garter buckles below the knee lately seen at the Rainbow Coffee-house." Knee buckles stayed in fashion as long as breeches were worn for formal wear, well into the 19th century. They were often made en suite with shoe buckles. (See figure 9) Another type of buckle often set with paste stones was the stock buckle. The stock was a high neckcloth of linen or cambric, stiffened with a pasteboard frame. Though sometimes tied, it was often buckled in the back with studded stock buckles. (See figure 10).
I continue to collect paste shoe buckles and have acquired several more since this Collection was originally posted. In fact, I have run out of space to display them! Here are two of my favorite new pairs:
J. Anderson Black, The Story of Jewelry, William Morrow and Co., 1974.
Mona Curran, Collecting Antique Jewellery, Emerson Books, 1963.
Eugenia Girotti, Footwear, Chronicle Books, 1986.
Bernard & Therle Hughes, Georgian Shoe Buckles, Greater London Council, 1972.
M.D.S Lewis, Antique Paste Jewellery, Faber and Faber, 1970.
Colin McDowell, Shoes, Fashion and Fantasy, Rizzoli, 1989.
Northampton Museum, Catalogue of Shoe and Other Buckles in the Northampton Museum, 1981.
Clare Phillips, Jewels and Jewellery, V&A Publications, 2000.
Lucy Pratt and Linda Woolley, Shoes, V&A Publications, 1999.
Diana Scarisbrick, Jewellery in Britain 1066-1837, Michael Russell Ltd., 1994.
June Swann, Shoes, Batsford Ltd, 1982.
Ross Whitehead, Buckles 1250-1800, Greenlight Publishing, 1996.
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