It has long been known that the pearl has played a central role in jewellery, with some of the earliest recorded fragments of a pearl necklace being dated to the 4th century BC. What are the most popular and successful designs of classic jewellery that pearls have been used with – and how are they being updated today?
The pearl was believed by numerous cultures to symbolize purity and to offer protection, as well as being indicative of their owner’s social position. Their beauty and rarity meant that the gems held an almost mythological, and certainly significant financial status.
The Timeless Classic
There are many examples through the ages of how our love for the pearl has influenced the wearing, adornment and design of the classic jewellery that we love today.
In China as early as 2300 BC, pearls were considered appropriate gifts for royalty, representing not just the integrity and loyalty of the giver but also the wisdom and virtue of the wearer. Julius Caesar passed a law in the 1st century BC, which determined that pearls should only be worn by the ruling classes.
In India, it is still believed that the pearl confers calm on its wearer, attracting wealth and good luck. The gem was a favourite of Indian royalty, most notably the Mahraja Khande Rao Gaekwad of Baroda, whose seven-strand necklace was legendary even within a culture where extraordinary gems were plentiful – so much so that the famed necklace gained a name of its own: the Baroda Pearls.
A Winterson South Sea pearl and pave diamond clasp necklace
Their extravagant value lead to the pearl playing an important role in trade, which only increased once they were discovered in Central and South America in the 15th century, a discovery which led to the so called Pearl Age.
As a visible symbol of wealth, the demand for pearls escalated, particularly in Western Europe, where royals and aristocrats increasingly emulated their peers in China, India and the Arab states, commissioning elaborate pearl necklaces, earrings, bracelets and brooches.
By the 19th century, demand for pearl jewellery was so high that the supply of natural pearls began to dwindle to the point today where historic pieces of natural pearl jewellery are so rare they can fetch high six or seven figure sums at auction.