If there is one gem that has been in demand from the beginning of civilization until now, it is the pearl. There may have been variations in supply and demand over the centuries but pearls have stayed in fashion. Poorer people might use shells for their jewellery but the rarer pearl was the preserve of the wealthy and the powerful. Many ancient pearl items of jewellery have not survived as the pearls have disintegrated but a pearl necklace from 500-450BC has been uncovered. Apparently, the Egyptians did not prize the pearl for jewellery but there are many examples of Roman pieces from between 100BC to 300AD and from the Byzantium period up to 1000AD. People wearing pearl jewellery are depicted on vases, paintings and mosaics. During the medieval period, the Church used pearls lavishly for ecclesiastical dress and regalia, as did kings and queens. Knights and wealthy merchants, and their wives in the late middle ages used pearls to decorate belt buckles, cloak brooches, girdles and headdresses. The Renaissance saw pearls being used on clothing and headdresses, in earrings, pendants and brooches. There are numerous pictures of Queen Elizabeth I of England wearing swags of pearl necklaces (although not all were real pearls).
Christopher Columbus was asked to look for pearls by his Royal sponsors and eventually found them off the coast of Venezuela. There was a growing demand for pearls in India during the 17th century.
Ostentatious use of pearls in England and other parts of Europe continued up until the beginning of the 19th century when jewellery became smaller and more delicate. Seed pearls became very popular, particularly for sentimental and mourning jewellery as well as for bridal finery. A growing middle class also meant that smaller pearls could be used for more affordable jewellery.
The Edwardian period saw a return to ostentatious pearl jewellery created for royalty throughout Europe, and in tiaras, earrings and necklaces for the wealthy which continued up until the first world war. Most pearls, except for seed pearls, were too expensive for the middle classes. However, in 1916, a massive event occurred – Kokichi Mikimoto was granted a US patent for culturing spherical pearls – and the market for natural pearls was totally disrupted.
Over the next two weeks, I will talk more about the origins of pearls used in antique jewellery, the impact of cultured pearls on antique jewellery, and then follow on with a discussion about seed pearls and half pearls.