Rhinestones have found a place of honour. We are leaving behind the holiday season, occasions where you traditionally have to glitter under the lights, and rhinestones were everywhere. They have become an indispensable element in the panoply of people who determine fashion tendencies. The word "strass" (rhinestones) appears in 1746 when the Strasbourg jeweller, Georges Frederic Strass (1701-1773) invented a transparent glass paste, which, with a percentage of lead that could exceed 50%, has a high refractive index giving it a glitter akin to that of a diamond. It has been used since then for making costume jewelry that imitates gemstones.
Traditionally used for costume jewelry and chandeliers, the glass now pervades our daily lives. With the help of technology, rhinestones are sewn, pasted, set. They are applied to clothing, and even directly to the skin in the form of tattoos or on the nails.
One of their most innovative and surprizing uses is the "grillz" which comes from the world of rappers. It is simply a decoration of teeth, dentures which can be decorated with diamonds, silver, gold and, of course, rhinestones. The use of these small crystals then rapidly extended to accessories, handbags, shoes, sunglasses, mobile phones, bottles and watches ranging from 20 Euros, handcuffs for Valentine's Day.
It is only a step away from personal objects to household objects. Several furniture pieces and lamps include rhinestones. Chairs, sofas, frames for photographs, cups, cutlery, pots, game consoles, CD players and even bathroom furniture like the superb porcelain sanitary bowl encrusted with crystals, proposed by Swarovski at 75 000 Euros.
At the 2009 Tokyo Motor show, Mercedes offers an SL 600 trimmed with 300,000 Swarovski crystals. To be a little more discrete, one may prefer to fix them only on the wheels or the dashboard.
It is such a strong trend that it touches areas where previously competition was of a purely technological nature.
The body of the Pentax K-m digital SLR camera launched last September, is covered with thousands of red, white and black crystals giving the most beautiful effect and clearly positions the product to cater to a feminine clientele. In the same register, the Olympus Mu 1040 is less conspicuous.
The reasons for this frenzy are manifold:
- Nothing would have been possible without the technological advances that now make available good quality crystals in terms of cut and color at affordable prices. Swarovski, in particular, has based its success on this technological aspect, thanks to the invention of cutting and polishing techniques since 1895. However, above all are the technological innovations allowing one to fix the crystals on new materials fuelling the present fashion phenomenon, which are largely responsible for the success of the Swarovski brand. To mention one of them, Crystal Mesh, material from crystal woven together introduced by the brand in 1993 and used by Louis Vuitton, Dolce & Gabana and Chanel, or Crystal Fabric invented in 2003, an elastic and untearable fabric that contains 1 million crystals per sq. metre.
- This expertise has made possible the emergence of new uses for strass. On fabrics, leather, for branded porcelain; on skin, nails, and teeth for individuals. They led, in particular, to the customization of products and people. This need to adorn oneself and one's environment is in keeping with the deep postmodern movement of embellishment of everyday life, and consumer products in particular. This does not necessarily result in products that are more beautiful, but rather products where the visual, tactile and sensory aspects have been given special attention.
- If the postmodern decline of grand ideologies often leads to an unbridled hedonism, the current economic crisis and its cortege of uncertainties only accentuate the desire to celebrate. The diamond and the rhinestone, its ersatz, are symbols of nocturnal festivity. Their brilliance needs the night and artificial lights to bring out all their splendour. These tiny pieces of glittering glass, now omnipresent in our daily lives, continue to exhale their festive perfumes and lighten the weight of reality.
- The U.S. rappers' "bling" culture and their taste for ostentatious luxury have contributed greatly to the spread of the use of rhinestones. The "Grillz" is the most striking example.
- The advent of intermediate luxury in consumption has also strongly encouraged the use of rhinestones. In this sector, the rule is to give the impression of exclusivity and luxury to a product that is accessible to the greatest number of consumers. The fantasy of a few is, suddenly, by extrapolation and a communicative alchemy and / or technology, applicable to the masses. This is the strategy of intermediate luxury: it gives everyone a feeling of accessible luxury for all and is not expensive.
- Rhinestones, imitation diamonds, directly exploit the virtues of diamond imagery: fortune, seduction, beauty, pleasure, power, adventure, etc. Economic value, symbolic gift, demonstrating the effectiveness of a woman's seduction, the night, the world of entertainment, the stars, being oneself a source of light, eternal youth. The adjectives that start with the letter m: magnificent, munificent, majestic, mirifique ... legends and myths: the crown jewelry, pirate's treasure, Edmond Dantès, Marylin. We wonder why one had to wait for the rappers' success to decide to exploit this vein.
This brings us back to the profound nature of the phenomenon. Rhinestones are mainly a symbol of appearance, an icon of our time, a civilization of superficial fantasy (like jewelry) where "acting as if" is often the rule of the game between brands and consumers and where the craziest desires are developed by the image.
The semantic alignment be / appear, relevant when analyzing our consumer culture and the semiotic square of veracity that results, broadly reflects the position of genuine and imitation products. Intermediate luxury, and strass in particular, are found on the vertical right side of the square, where reigns the need to imitate, of social classes, tribes or persons. The square also shows how intermediate luxury is a sub-category of ostentatious luxury.
Then imitation acquires a life of its own. The pervasiveness of the substitute ends up by forgetting the original or at least blurs the frontiers. Many Vuitton customers believe that the monogrammed canvas is made of leather. It is one of the sources of the problems that Swarovski is now facing. One part of their market reproach it, under cover of a position in the world of fashion, of wanting to pass crystal jewelry off for other than what it is, and thus selling it at high prices. It is hard for me to believe the fashion-related "strass" phenomenon will last over time. There is too much need for authenticity today that will make glass nothing more than a passing fancy. I am more likely to believe that technological advances in the treatment of surfaces (nanotechnology, for example) will soon present us with new and dramatic visual effects.
© Gérald Mazzalovo