Pearls have been worn as jewellery for a very long time but have only been associated with mourning for a tiny fraction of that time. The earliest surviving pearl jewellery comes from Iran around 500 BC, then Ancient Egypt around 323-330 BC and then the Greeks and Romans. During the medieval period, the Church used pearls lavishly for ecclesiastical dress and regalia, as did kings and queens. In the late middle ages, knights and wealthy merchants, and their wives used pearls to decorate belt buckles, cloak brooches, girdles and headdresses. This decorative use continued into the Renaissance and demand for them was high. Christopher Columbus was asked to look for pearls by his Royal sponsors and eventually found them off the coast of Venezuela, returning with almost 50 ounces of pearls. There was a growing demand for pearls in India during the 17th century.
The symbolism associated with pearls has changed over the centuries. While always associated with wealth and power, they have also been associated with purity and chastity. Any pictures of Elizabeth I of England, for instance, show her clothes covered in pearls and her wearing long magnificent ropes of pearls, symbolising a Virgin Queen. In the Elizabethan period, pearls were also associated with death, and were worn by widows and by mourners as a sign of respect. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, pearls became symbols of fertility, and paintings of pregnant women during this time show them wearing pearl jewellery and pearl decorated clothing.
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.
In the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, sentimental and mourning rings, pins, brooches and clasp were often bordered with seed and half pearls. Queen Victoria’s lengthy mourning period for her husband helped consolidate the use of pearls on mourning jewellery. In the Victorian era, widows were required to mourn their husband for two and a half to three years. There were three stages of mourning. The first stage, one year, required women to wear complete outfits in black, layered with black crape, including head veils. The second stage, which lasted six months, still required all black outfits but the layers of crape could be removed. For the third stage of the mourning period, women could wear gray, mauves and purple. Only jewellery made from jet (or its imitations such as bog oak, gutta percha and vulcanite), black enamel or onyx could be worn during the first stage of mourning. Tortoiseshell, horn, ivory, lava, iron-work and niello could be worn in the second stage, while cameos, pietra dura, coral and pearls were acceptable in the third stage.
Today, mourning does not extend for a couple of years and the rules of etiquette associated with death has been greatly simplified. Generally, black clothing is not even expected at funerals and no specific gemstones are specified as being required to be worn. The death of a monarch is, however, a very formal ritual and as we can see in the funeral rites for Queen Elizabeth II, black is being worn by family, dignitaries, politicians and other participants and attendees. What is also being worn by, mainly, woman, are pearls. They may be simple stud earrings or magnificent four or five strand pearl necklaces with bejewelled central clasps but the link between mourning and pearls again seems very clear.