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The lustrous history of pearl jewellery

For centuries, pearls have captivated us with their ethereal beauty. As one of the oldest gemstones applied to jewellery, pearls have a rich and storied history spanning civilisations and continents.

Pearl necklaces sitting and a scallop shell containing pearls, sitting atop sketches of antique jewellery, with scissors and a pencil

Ancient Allure

From the shores of ancient Egypt to the imperial palaces of Rome, pearls decorated royalty, nobility, and the elite for many years, revered as symbols of luxury, divinity, and status. The oldest known pearl necklace is about 2500 years old (read about it in my blog post), although ancient texts have assured us that we’ve been wearing pearls for far longer than that. Ancient Egyptians believed that pearls were tears of the gods, and Cleopatra, the iconic and last queen of Egypt, famously adorned herself with pearls to showcase her wealth, goddess-like status and beauty.

In ancient China, pearls were associated with wisdom, purity, and the moon. Chinese empresses and noblewomen adorned themselves with pearl jewellery, believing it imbued them with grace and elegance. In India, pearls symbolise femininity and prosperity, worn as elaborate necklaces, earrings, and other regal ornaments by royalty and women of high social status.

Roman 1st century Gold and pearl earrings, each with two hanging pearls
Gold and pearl earrings Roman 1st century CE

Image from the Metropolitan Museum public domain

Romantic Renaissance

The Renaissance era witnessed a resurgence of interest in pearls. Coveted for their soft lustre and ability to enhance natural beauty, artists, poets, and aristocrats used pearls to capture the nostalgic spirit of classical antiquity. Royal portraits and elaborate jewellery designs showcased the status and refined taste of the wearer.

The painting of Venus Blindfolding Cupid from the Renaissance period by Italian artist "Master of the Female Half-Lengths" or "Master of the Female Nude"
Venus Blindfolding Cupid, c. 1566/1570 or c. 1576/1580

Image from the National Gallery of Australia public domain

Victorian Sentimentality

The Victorian era brought forth a sentimentality that influenced pearl jewellery. Pearls became associated with mourning rituals and were often incorporated into mourning jewellery, symbolic of tears. Queen Victoria's love for pearls influenced present-day fashion, making elaborate pearl designs with diamonds and other gemstones very popular.

The Cultured Pearl Movement

In 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto, a Japanese entrepreneur, achieved a breakthrough when he produced the first cultured pearl. His innovative cultivation technique marked a dramatic overhaul of the pearl industry, offering an alternative to the scarcity and high cost of natural pearls and allowing this once-rare gemstone to be a more affordable luxury for a growing population to enjoy.

Kokichi Mikimoto from Mikimoto pearls, inspecting pearls
Kokichi Mikimoto

Image from Wikimedia Commons public domain

Artistic Movements

The artistic movements of the 20th century redefined pearl jewellery. The Art Nouveau period celebrates the beauty of natural forms. The soft shape and gentle iridescence of pearls embodied Art Nouveau aesthetics, symbolising purity, grace, and femininity within intricate and flowing designs of Art Nouveau jewellery. The Art Deco era embraced geometric shapes and symmetry, and pearls were often paired with diamonds, reflecting the modernist spirit and sophistication of the time.

Art Nouveau woman's head and floral emblem pendant/brooch titled 'Flora'. Made from gold, enamel, diamond & pearls
'Flora' Art Nouveau Pendant/Brooch - Gold, enamel, diamond & pearl

Image by Louis Aucoc from Wikimedia Commons public domain

Contemporary Elegance

Even now, pearls embody timeless elegance and charm, maintaining a hint of their ancient association with divinity and royalty. Today these gems are still worn, adored and treasured as heirlooms.


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