Pearls: a long history

A symbol of wealth, status and a form of currency. Pearls have never gone out of fashion with the rich. And when pearls were cultured, or even faked, the reputation of the pearl still survived: rare, unique and mysterious. This magical, natural gemstone has fascinated us for centuries.


What is a pearl?

When a piece of grit enters its shell, an oyster secretes a layer of nacre around the irritant to protect soft tissue from harm. Nacre forms a firm crystalline substance containing calcium carbonate that turns into a smooth coating building up in layers over many months. The beautiful pearl can be taken from the shell without any need for polishing or finishing. The overlapping translucent layers give a pearl its shimmer, reflecting the light through those layers.


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Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Mother of pearl comes from the nacre that lines the shell. It is as beautiful and lustrous as a formed pearl.

We have been harvesting pearls for centuries in order to try and capture some of the beauty of nature for ourselves. The collecting of pearls is thought to have begun in ancient India among fish-eating families who fancied keeping hold of those little sea jewels. Pearl fishing continued in India, Persia, Japan, China, the South Seas and South America.

Let’s leap into the time machine. There’s a lot of ground to cover with such a long history of pearls.


Ancient History

A necklace was originally a pagan protective device to stop the soul from leaving the body and flying off without you. Sounds like a pretty essential piece of jewellery in that case.

In ancient religions, pearls are symbolic of the moon and possessing magical properties. In fact, most religions make reference to pearls. They are symbolic in Hindu, Hebrew, Christian and Islamic religions. Pearls are heavenly and pure, the symbol of perfection.

Once upon a time, the family jewels were passed down from generation to generation. Pearls were popular and worn by royalty only. Who else could afford such rare luxuries from the ocean bed?

In ancient Egypt, mother-of-pearl is used to decorate buildings, clothing and jewellery. Even cosmetics were made from ground-up pearl. The Egyptians discover round pearls through the influence of Persia. A pearl necklace, believed to be from a Persian princess, now hangs in the Louvre.


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The Birth of Venus, c.1485
Sandro Botticelli

The Ancient Greeks view oysters and pearls as symbols of love. Ancient Romans also adore pearls as a sign of status for both men and women. Both Aphrodite and Venus are said to have emerged from an oyster shell. Pearls are even a form of currency among natives in the South Seas. In ancient China pearl jewellery represents purity in the wearer and pearls could be used as currency.


Middle Ages

In medieval Europe, only royalty and high nobility are allowed to wear pearls — by law. Women wear delicate pearls and knights carry pearls (for luck) in battle. Two rows of pearls laid into a crown become the symbol of royalty.


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Elizabeth I, Armada Portrait, circa 1588
George Gower

Since Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, pearls have been consistently linked to royalty. Elizabeth I had a huge collection of pearls. She has several wigs and thousands of dresses with pearls sewn into them. When supplies ran low — and they did — she didn’t mind wearing imitation pearls.

Renaissance design encorporates baroque or river pearls into designs. This pearl has an irregular shape so needs a touch of creativity to make something special. Charles I wears a pearl pendant earring in one ear. Mary, Queen of Scots is also a fan of pearls but loses them all to Queen Elizabeth, along with her life.


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Girl with a Pearl Earring c1665
Jan Vermeer

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, South Sea and oriental natural pearls are discovered by Western explorers and very much sought after in Europe. Demand for pearls becomes so high that, by the 19th Century, supplies of oysters are running low. Imitation pearls are made with mother-of-pearl and other shells or glass covered with a substance made from fish scales.


Late 19th Century

No longer exclusive to royalty, pearls are the height of fashion throughout the late 19th Century. Oysters are over-harvested to keep up with demand. With the rise of democracy and the growing middle class, the pearl becomes a status symbol for anyone with money to burn — an image that is still with us in the 21st Century.

The wife of the Prince of Wales (soon to be Edward VII), Alexandra, is a fan of a pearl and diamond combo and is known to wear several strings of pearls at once around her neck. She also wears a choker-style collier du chien (dog collar) set with pearls and diamonds. All this to conceal a surgery scar on her neck. Both royals are popular and considered pioneers of fashion. The pearl choker necklace is a fashion must-have amongst the rich for decades to follow.


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Portrait of Queen Alexandra
W. And D. Downey


1900s and Art Nouveau

Pearls are a perfect complement to the pale colours and fussy fashions of the early 20th Century. Queen Alexandra is still an influence on the fashionable of Europe. Pearls appear as clusters on brooches and earrings as well as on necklaces and chokers.


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Mata Hari 1905
Reutlinger Studio

The exotic becomes fashionable as the curious discover previously unknown cultures. Eastern and Western cultures open up to each other as never before with the rise of travel and trade barriers.

The natural curvature of a pearl suits the designs of Art Nouveau jewellery. It also fits with the growing use of semi-precious, natural stones, jewel tones, translucent gemstones and enamel. Baroque pearls are fashionable due to their natural appearance: each one unique in its asymmetry compared to mechanically-produced jewels. Liberty of London use tiny baroque pearls in their fashionable jewellery design.


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Art Nouveau Pendant


1910s and Edwardian style

The Rococo Revival style of the Edwardian era also embraces the natural contours of the pearl. Elaborate and fussy jewellery and dresses adorned with diamonds and pearls are all the rage. It’s an era of excess and showing off your wealth. Hair piled on top of the head and low necklines are the perfect setting for elaborate be-jewelled necklaces, chokers, hair ornaments and hatpins — all include pearls — and anything else that might fit on there.

For several years, Japanese jeweller Kokichi Mikimoto has been developing a method to cultivate perfectly round pearls. In 1916 he is granted a patent alongside Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise for producing cultured pearls. The idea had first been developed in Australia and was brought to Japan. This would transform the commercial production of pearls making them cheaper and easier to produce. It’s difficult to convince people to buy these relatively inexpensive pearls at first.


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Baroque Cultured Pearl
European School


1920s streamline

Obsessed with the escape from the past to embrace the future, the design aesthetic of the 1920s is streamlined, unfussy, lean and practical. Synthetics are embraced as part of this look. Long, simple strands of beads and pearls are the height of fashion. Hard edges epitomise the modern, as does the perfect geometry of a round pearl.


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Louise Brooks, 1928, Eugene Robert Richee

Costume jewellery becomes more popular with the fashion élite as Coco Chanel convinces women to look good beyond the tradition of fine jewellery. Experiments with cheaper materials and synthetics allow for jewellery to follow fast fashion rather than signify status. Modern fashion designers produce their own jewellery collections. In this spirit, the wearing of imitation pearls made from Lucite or glass is most encouraged.

In 1928, a small number of Japanese cultured pearls arrive in the jewellery market for the first time — known as akoya pearls.


1930s and inexpensive glamour

The idea of costume jewellery has filtered down to the masses and economic depression turns attention towards cheap yet glamorous looks. The rise of cinema-going (an inexpensive form of entertainment) and Hollywood glamour set the fashion tone for all to follow. Diamonds and their sparkle under the studio lights are better suited to the new Hollywood sound film studios than clanking, noisy pearls.


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Holiday, Katharine Hepburn

Movie star fashion dictates that a single string of pearls transforms into a shorter pearl necklace with several rows of pearls instead and fastened by a diamante clip at the back of the neck. This multi-pearl look is easier to achieve with cultured pearls which are now being produced commercially (in small numbers). Wearing inexpensive pearls adds instant affordable glamour. Imitation pearls are also popular, made from emerging types of new plastic and from glass.

The reputation of the natural pearl is damaged by the rise of cultured pearl production. From now on natural pearls are only sought after by those interested in fine jewellery.


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Lauren Bacall


1940s are austere and playful

During wartime, jewellery production ceases and many women turn to costume jewellery as a staple. Bakelite, plastic and imitation are now acceptable forms of jewellery.

By the end of the war, Surrealism and psychology influence jewellery design. It’s time to lighten up after the austerity of wartime. Designers and artists begin to have fun with jewellery. In 1949, Salvador Dali designs a brooch with rubies for lips and pearls for teeth — naturally. Another playful jewellery design is the Jelly Belly: animals with round Lucite bellies with silver or gold-plated settings.


1950s promotes classy femininity

Diamonds are still the glamour favourite but pearls become highly fashionable again — especially pearl necklaces which are considered a sign of subtle elegance, innocence and femininity.

Real pearls are a sign of wealth, purity and class without being too obvious. However, it has become increasingly difficult to tell the difference between real and fake pearls. As well as the standard pearl, there are coloured pearls too.


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Grace Kelly, Mid 1950s

European fashion, especially from France, is the leader of fashion and this includes natural simple materials — such as the pearl. Grace Kelly’s elegant demeanor is sealed with a string of demure pearls around the neck. Jackie Kennedy’s classy style is epitomise by a triple-stranded faux pearl necklace. Audrey Hepburn dresses in simple Euro-chic style with a small, demure strand of pearls.


1960s rebellion

The 1960s offer a new type of super-celebrity: fabulously wealthy film stars with more money than royalty and with more influence too. Youth culture is rebelling against traditional signs of status and this includes jewellery. Just like the 1920s, it is a time to look to the future with modern design. Beads and plastic in bright colours take over from diamonds and pearls which the young now consider to be ageing and old-fashioned.

But by the end of the decade, nostalgia has once again become fashionable and this begins to filter into jewellery design and fashion taste.

In 1969, Richard Burton gives Elizabeth Taylor the precious La Peregrina pearl, the largest of the black pearls. It originally belonged to King Philip II of Spain and discovered in 1513. Hollywood royalty is taking over the obsession with fine jewellery and rare pearls. Now we have a distinction between wearing jewellery for fashion (inexpensive and fun) and wearing rare natural pearls found 500 years ago (expensive and status symbol).


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Queen Mary I (1516-58) 1554 with La Peregrina
Antonis Mor


1970s and the environment

The hippy and counter-culture of the late 1960s and 70s fights back against extravagance and fakery. It also frowns upon raping nature of its innocent beauty. This includes robbing pearls and coral from the sea to adorn yourself and plundering the earth for diamonds and gold. People take an interest in ethnic jewellery and natural, sustainable materials.

Pearls take a back seat once more as subcultures reclaim their identity through disco, street, hip hop and punk fashion. Dressing head to toe in casual denim does not match well with pearls and notions of royalty and heritage. Old ways of empire and social status no longer apply.


1980s consumption

A pearl necklace symbolises upper-class conservative femininity to whoever can afford it. Once more the pearl necklace suggests tradition, aristocracy and a sign of wealth. Royalty reclaims the pearl once more. Imitation pearls are seen as commercial and cheap and nasty.


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Princess Diana

And what about today?
We are still making the distinction between fine jewellery for the rich and classy. Pearls are aspirational, traditional and something we still think of as conservative. Perhaps this idea of the pearl will change as tastes and ideas about how we produce pearls will change. But what a history the pearl has. It is truly an iconic and ancient symbol of the unfathomable beauty that comes from nature. I hope that the next time you look at a pearl you will see the history that runs through that magical shimmering orb. Pearls (and nature) will never stop amazing us.


Sources and recommended reading

Vintage Jewellery by Caroline Cox (2010). Find on Amazon USA and also UK.

The Book of Pearls by Joan Younger Dickinson (1968).

The Book of the Pearl by George Frederick Kunz & Charles Hugh Stevenson (1908). Find also at Amazon USA.

4 Comments on “Pearls: a long history

  1. Wow! How fabulous and thoughtful for you to publish such an extensive history of pearls thru the ages.
    Wonderful pictures, too!
    Thank you so very much.
    Helps me with my listing & description of a mother-of-pearl necklace.
    I will be sure to check in with you again.
    Best wishes to you and yours for Christmas and blessings in 2014!!!
    Ruthanne aka:ruthisunshine

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Ruth. I’m sure there must be more to find out about pearls so I’ll keep looking out for more info.

  2. I have the framed picture of then women in black holding the long strand of pearls. Do you know anything about that picture? Inhane had it many years and would like to know anout it

    • Hello Artemis. It is a publicity photograph of actress Louise Brooks from c.1929 by Eugene Robert Richee for Paramount Pictures. Hope that helps.

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