The name 'rhinestone' comes from the pebbles of rock crystal found centuries ago in and near the Rhine river of Europe. These natural crystals and other man-made pieces of highly refined glass were laboriously hand cut and ground., and were very expensive. About 1775 a French jeweler by the name of Stras had the idea of coating the back of these pieces of glass with metal powder to improve their luster. The result was a good imitation of a diamond, but these stones were still handcrafted and very expensive.
In 1892 a son of a Bohemian gem cutter by the name of Daniel Swarovski invented a mechanical gem cutting machine that was capable of very fine, precision work. Three years later Swarovski moved to Austria and began running his water-powered crystal stone cutting factory. The result was high quality stones produced at a fraction of the cost. Thus the rhinestone's role as a quality, low cost alternative to the diamond in the jewelry making industry increased.
Swarovski continued innovating the rhinestone industry by devising a vacuum method of fusing gold and silver on the back of rhinestones that created an even more brilliant luster. Swarovski crystal is still the highest quality rhinestone in the jewelry business today.
Modern rhinestones are not only made from glass, but from plastics and acrylics of various formulas. The inexpensiveness of some modern rhinestones has allowed them to be used in every kind of application, from dog collars to baseball caps. But the beauty of a well-made rhinestone can lend itself to fine pieces of jewelry that are much more affordable than jewelry made from genuine diamonds. The above-mentioned piano player with a love of rhinestones was of course Liberace. In 1982, Liberace was given a 51 pound, 115,000 carat clear rhinestone from the Swarovski Crystal Company of Austria in appreciation for his being their biggest customer. This rhinestone, worth $50,000 twenty years ago, now resides in the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada.
It has been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Rhinestones are quite simply imitations of diamonds. Some are cheap imitations, some are high quality imitations. But the great diamond imitator has given something to many people that otherwise would never have had it, a glimpse of the sparkle and beauty of the most valued of gems, the diamond.