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  • Writer's pictureAntiques in Oxford

Pearls in various eras

Georgian and Victorian designs

Many of the pearls in Georgian jewellery are from the Pinctada radiata oyster found in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and waters around Sri Lanka.

Tiny seed pearls were increasingly popular throughout the era and into the Victorian period. Seed pearls which vary in size from 1-2mm originated in India. They were used to accentuate the frame of rings or earrings. They were also hand-sewn onto drilled mother of pearl to create necklaces. Seed pearl pave, where lines of tiny pearls are set in single or multiple rows, also offered a stylish way for jewellers to incorporate pearls into brooches.

Pearls were also commonly found in mourning jewellery, set around painted portraits or landscapes, or offset by washes of enamel. Fake blown glass ‘pearls’ made from an inner coating of nacre, created by making a paste from fish scales giving them the appearance of natural pearls, also became popular.

Edwardian times

As their availability declined in the Edwardian era so their rarity guaranteed that pearls were seen as a status symbol. They were even considered more valuable than diamonds! Another factor was the founding of the De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd in 1888. This meant diamonds were more widely available and relatively affordable.

Pearls’ luminosity was also in keeping with the ‘white on white’ theme of Edwardian jewellery, pioneered by Cartier. Many pieces incorporated both pearls and diamonds. It was a trend that lasted until the beginning of WWI.

Necklaces became more revealing following the conservative Victorians. This gave rise to the colliers de chien(or dog collars) made from a double string of pearls attached to a brooch or gemstone. Equally popular at the time were below the waist sautoirs, composed of long ropes of pearls or beads with a fringed tassel.

Coco Chanel

The desire for pearls remained so insatiable that imitation ones took over in the 1920s. Their greatest advocate, a decade later, was Coco Chanel whose single pearl clip earrings were a significant part of her iconic image. The French designer, who famously declared ‘a woman needs rope and ropes of pearls’, wore them prodigiously, often both real and fake together. Chanel was also the first designer to introduce fake pearls and gemstones into her collections, sparking a trend that is still popular today. Her simplistic garments, think ‘little black dress’, provided the perfect canvas to pile layers of pearls.

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