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What is a rhinestone?

A rhinestone is a man-made imitation of a cut and polished gemstone. Centuries ago, quartz pebbles with a high lead content were found sparkling on the banks of Europe's Rhine River. These beautiful, natural stones were highly coveted and were eventually depleted, inspiring jewelers to create an imitation, aptly named the "rhinestone."

Throughout history, the highest quality rhinestones have been made from leaded crystal—that is, glass to which other ingredients, such as lead, have been added, creating a material that is easier to cut and refracts incoming light. Traditionally, it has been thought the higher the lead content, the more brilliant the rhinestone.

The term "rhinestone" is now used to describe an imitation gemstone made from crystal, glass or even plastic acrylic.In different parts of the world, it is also called: paste, diamante, strass, and crystal (though the term "crystal" should really only be used to describe a rhinestone actually made of crystal material). Today, rhinestones are manufactured in Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany and parts of Asia. The timeline below notes some of the most significant events in the development of the rhinestone.As Swarovski has pioneered crystal methods and technology throughout the past 120 years, many of the notable rhinestone events belong to them.

  • Circa 1775: The true sparkle began when the back side of glass was coated with a metal powder, which acted as a mirror to reflect incoming light. The resulting sparkle closely imitated diamonds. There is debate as to whom this idea is credited: jewelers Joseph Strasser of Vienna, Austria, or Georg Friedrich Strass of the Alsace region of France. At this time, rhinestones were still individually handcrafted, which made them accessible in price only to the wealthy.
  • 1892: Daniel Swarovski, son of a Bohemian gem cutter, designs an electric machine that enables crystal to be cut much more precisely than was previously possible by hand.
  • 1895: Swarovski founds the company in Wattens, a small town in the Austrian Alps, setting up a factory where his patented invention could be powered by the nearby rivers.Success in producing rhinestones economically without compromising the quality of the cut meant Daniel was achieving his vision of creating "a diamond for every woman."
  • 1907: Swarovski's first big hydropower plant is built.In addition to providing electrical power to the cutting machines and light to the working areas, large areas of Wattens and the neighboring mountain communities receive "Swarovski power."
  • 1915: The Preciosa brand was first registered in Bohemia—an area rich with centuries of crystal-making tradition—when several artisans united following World War II. The company was officially established in 1948.
  • 1956: Daniel Swarovski's grandson, Manfred, introduces the Aurora Borealis: an iridescent coating applied to crystal rhinestones that produces a rainbow effect. In collaboration with French fashion designer Christian Dior, the stone is launched into the fashion spotlight, cementing a new era in both industries. In the same year, Daniel Swarovski dies at the age of 93, leaving one of Austria's largest companies in the hands of the family who shared his passion for innovation.
  • 1976: A Swarovski craftsman glues chandelier parts together in the shape of a mouse, which was so adored that it launched an entire line of collectible crystal figurines.
  • 1995: Celebrating 100 years, Swarovski opens Kristallwelten (Crystal Worlds) museum.  The imaginative, large-scale crystal exhibits are created with designers from around the world.
  • 2012: Swarovski introduces Advanced Crystal, a revolutionary crystal recipe that does not add lead. As one of the key ingredients in the making of quality crystal for centuries, Swarovski previously had the distinction of crystal with the highest lead content—up to 30%. The addition of lead to glass was desired in traditional recipes, as it makes the crystal material denser and softer—therefore, easier to cut with precision—and, perhaps most notably, breaks light into the spectrum, making the rhinestone a prism. To get the same brilliant effects with a lead-free recipe, therefore, is groundbreaking. 

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