When we think of pearls in jewellery, our minds usually think about lovely pearl necklaces or earrings, with large south sea pearls or creamy cultured pearls, or with the magnificent ropes of pearls seen in the paintings of Elizabeth I. And yet it is much smaller pearls that are the workhorse of antique jewellery. Until spherical cultured pearls became commercially available from 1916 onwards, the rarity of large natural pearls meant that they were out of the reach of all but the very wealthy. However, the seed pearl and slightly larger sized pearls were more plentiful and thus affordable, and so we see them used often.
Seed pearls, which are defined as generally less than 2mm in diameter, were used to provide a border for a jewel or miniature, for tassels, or to encrust a piece in pretty patterns. Between 1840 to 1860, jewellery comprised completely of seed pearls was very popular. Seed pearl suites comprising a necklace, two bracelets, two earrings, a brooch and a corsage were created, and were associated with weddings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were also used for sentimental and mourning jewellery, particularly the latter as they symbolized teardrops of sadness.
Another small pearl that was used a lot in antique jewellery is the half pearl. Half pearls are small pearls that either had been cut away from the shell of the mussel and so had a flat side or were the better halves of defective pearls. They range in size from 0.5mm up to 4mm in some cases. Pearls purchased from India might be processed in Idar – Oberstein in the Duchy of Oldenburg, Germany, an important centre of the half pearl industry. In the Idar region alone, over 100 workers were employed. You will find half pearls in rings, brooches, watches and pendants.
Smaller pearls have an important place in antique jewellery and add a touch of elegance to even humble items, like the hair brooches photographed above.