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  • Ruth

The mystery of the Susa Pearl Necklace

Updated: May 16, 2023

A tomb raider, a museum and an elusive piece of history.

When researching for my upcoming pearl jewellery collection, I've been digging into the history surrounding pearl jewellery. But after learning all I can about the oldest known piece of pearl jewellery, four mysteries still haunt me.

Due to the fragile composition of pearls (see my previous blog post about how to care for these delicate gemstones), it can be hard to find archaeological evidence of pearls used in ancient jewellery. But sealed in a sarcophagus, in a tomb, under the ancient city of Susa, Iran, an archaeologist uncovered a pearl necklace believed to be about 2500 years old.

Mystery 1: The person buried with the jewellery is relatively unknown.

Raided from the bronze sarcophagus of an unknown Achaemenid princess in 1901 by French archaeologist M. Jacques de Morgan(1), this necklace is the oldest piece of surviving pearl jewellery in the world, discovered along with more jewellery and ornaments made from gold and precious gemstones(3). Now known as the Susa Neckalce, M. de Morgan believes this piece is from 420 BCE(2). But who was the princess? I wish I knew.

This collier necklace is Syrian in style and was once composed of 400-500 pearls. Now, it has 216 remaining pearls, with many disintegrating on impact when removed from the tomb. Many of these pearls have deteriorated in colour and shape and are strung on bronze wire, interspersed and joined by ten gold gemstone-encrusted spacers. Each spacer bar comprised three small discs (about 5mm in diameter), separating the pearl collier into nine even divisions. At the ends of the necklace is a larger 10mm disc securing all three pearl strands(2). I've painted a vague rendition (above). Apparently, this necklace is on display in the Persian Gallery in the Louvre Museum in Paris(4), but this is where the mystery gets bigger.

Mystery 2: Where are all the images of this famous necklace?

I can only find one photo of the Susa Necklace. Only one image of the famed piece on the entire internet! It was taken in 2006 at the Louvre Museum in Paris by Kari Anderson, a pearl merchant and avid blogger(4). Kari believes the necklace could be the famed Susa necklace but isn't 100% sure. And for one of the most famous pieces of jewellery on earth, there would be more photos, information and clarity, right?

Mystery 3: The Louvre Museum is also being frustratingly mysterious.

Here is what it says on the museum title card, also photographed by Kari in 2009 (4):

Collier a trois rangs de perles fine reunis par des coulants incrustes.

Or et pierres semi-precieuses sb2767

Fouilles J. de Morgan, 1901

Which translates to:

Necklace with three rows of fine pearls joined by inlaid sliders.

Gold and semi-precious stones sb2767

Excavated by J. de Morgan, 1901

An observation of the necklace in the Louvre and the museum title card seems to match the description of the Susa Necklace, as described in The Book of the Pearl from 1908(2) (the first piece of remaining literature documenting the Susa Necklace). But being the oldest known piece of pearl jewellery, I expect some fanfare in the museum title card. I also expected clarity. Can we be sure this is the Susa Necklace?

Sidebar: I'm heading to the Louvre in late September 2023 and am excited to see it myself. If you want to beat me to it, you can find the necklace in the Darius palace rooms in the Near Eastern Antiquities section of the Louvre(5).

Mystery 4: Where are the peer-reviewed papers on one of the most famous pearl necklaces in the world?

Another problem I have with this story is that all articles on this topic (that reference their sources) seem to link back to one article published in 1984(1), except for Kari’s blog(4), which cites The Book of the Pearl (which can be purchased for $56.25–$4178.28 or read for free online)(2). I know the subject is niche, but for a topic that receives academic study—there is even a Society of Jewellery Historians— surely more people have written academic studies about the Susa Necklace. It's a frustrating predicament, but because I don't have access to all the scholarly articles hidden behind academic walls and paywalls, there is a limit to how much research I can do.

I'm sure there is more to uncover.


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