Jewelers and their clients have prized pearls since at least the days of Cleopatra. The Roman emperor Julius Caesar is thought to have invaded England in order to sate his desire for the freshwater pearls that were harvested in the rivers of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

The charms of freshwater notwithstanding, salt-water pearls are the most sought-after variety. They are more lustrous and uniform in shape than their freshwater cousins. Historically, the best pearl beds were found in the Persian Gulf and the waters between India and Ceylon.

In Victorian England, jewelry made with innumerable seed pearls imported from India and China was enormously popular. Seed pearls were used in necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and even mourning jewelry. Sometimes the pearls were sewn to mother-of-pearl backing pieces with tough, white horsehair. In other pieces, the white color of the pearls was contrasted against jet or black enamel.

During the Arts and Crafts era, flat and oval blister pearls found an audience, while teardrop and pear-shaped pearls were embraced during the Art Nouveau era. But during these periods, events in Japan were happening that would change the use of pearls in fine jewelry forever.

Pearls are unique among precious gems in that they begin their lives in a living organism, usually an oyster. Pearls are produced by these mollusks when a microscopic particle is trapped in the creature’s soft interior. Calcium carbonate is secreted around the particle and within a few years a pearl has formed.

In 1907, a Japanese carpenter named Tatsuhei Mise and a zoologist named Tokichi Nishikawa simultaneously developed very similar techniques for culturing pearls. Each applied for a patent and each waited almost a decade for an answer. Then, inexplicably, in 1916 a patent was granted to an entrepreneur named Kokichi Mikimoto. Mikimoto eventually embraced Mise and Nishikawa’s techniques, but Mikimoto’s name is what we think of today when we think of cultured pearls.

With the arrival of cultured pearls, jewelers were offered more choices than would have been practical when pearls were harvested blindly in the wild. Necklaces with graduated si...

In the middle of the 20th century, modernist jewelers often used a single pearl as a minimalist accent on their silver and enameled pieces. Pearls were used in rings, from cultured ones to oddly shaped baroque examples. Pearls were even deployed in groups to suggest bunches of grapes, as in a floral motif brooch with silver and jade playing the roles of vines and leaves.

Naturally, pearls have been worn by some of the leading ladies of the day. Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, and Princess Di were all famously photographed wearing single or double necklaces strung only with pearls. These glamorous women wore pearls to show their sense of sophistication and even restraint, Not so the pearl approach of Lady Gaga, who recently attended a round of fashion shows in New York with pearls glued to her cheeks and chin and sewn onto her white outfit, literally from head to toe.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

All About Jewels Dictionary

All About Jewels Dictionary

This incredible reference dictionary on jewelry, from Enchantedlearning.com, is both beautiful and comprehensive. S… [read review or visit site]

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Morning Glory Antiques and Jewelry

Jewelry collectors, feast your eyes on this internet gem! It's a goldmine of jewelry information featuring all styl… [read review or visit site]

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

Cathy Gordon's Jewelry Gallery

With its vast galleries featuring clear images of jewelry and style, this site really covers it all! Divided up by … [read review or visit site]

Jewel History

Jewel History

Since March of 2007, readers of Lori Ettlinger Gross’s Jewel History blog have been treated to her weekly (someti… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Victorian Large 9ct Gold Turquoise Amethyst Pearl Lavaliere Brooch CasedAntique Victorian Edwardian 10k Gold Filigree Blue Spinel Seed Pearl Earrings15ct/15k Gold Old Cushion Cut Diamond & Pearl Art Deco Drop Earrings, 62515ct/ 15k Gold Diamond,sapphire & Cultured Pearl Art Deco Drop Earrings, 625**estate Mikimoto 18k Yellow Gold Pearl Necklace 5.5-5.9mm 30" With Box 35.5g Superb Antique Victorian Large 9ct Gold Amethyst Pearl Lavaliere Pendant & ChainFinest Antique Georgian 18ct Gold Cushion Cut Garnet Pearl Ring In Antique BoxA Vintage, Antique Style Hallmarked 9ct Gold Emerald & Seed Pearl Dress Ring!!Antique Art Nouveau Edwardian Sterling Silver Pave Turquoise Pearl Drop PendantRare Antique Victorian 14k Gold Garnet Pearl Snake Serpent Heart Locket NecklaceFine Antique Victorian 10k Gold Carved Amethyst & Pearl Flower RingAntique 14k Gold Seed Pearl Multi-color Enamel Beetle Pin / BroochVintage 36" 7mm Sea Pearl Necklace 18k W Gold Rose Diamond Sapphire Clasp OperaFine Victorian Natural Seed Pearl 15ct/ 9k Gold Cluster Pendent On Chain 15k 625**estate 14k White Gold 10pts Diamond Pearl 2 Strand Necklace 40.7 Grams 13.5-Antique Vintage 1920 Deco 14k Gold Chinese Carved Jade Jadeite Pearl Pin Brooch!Finest Antique 18ct Gold Emerald Pearl Serpent Infinity Brooch In Antique CaseVintage 18kt Yellow Gold Pearl Amethyst Gemstone Italian Crown Necklace PendantAntique Victorian 10k Gold Gf Opal & Pearl Slide Chain Necklace & Bonus Locket15ct/ 15k Gold Sapphire,seed Pearl, Ruby & Opal Victorian Butterfly Clip BroochVintage Old Pawn Navajo Sterling Silver Bead Necklace Navajo Pearls Heavy *750Antique Victorian Miniature Mourning Portrait On Ivory Braided Hair Seed PearlsAntique Victorian Low Karat Gold Turquoise Paste Pearl Bird EarringsVictorian 18ct Gold Graduated Seed Pearl Set Crescent BroochVintage Bohemian Garnet Seed Pearl Sterling Silver Pave Dangle Drop NecklaceAntique Georgian Scottish 15ct Gold Mourning Ring With Seed Pearls; Size IAntique Victorian Hallmark Austro Hungarian Silver Enamel Garnet Pearl Necklace Antique 9ct Gold Peridot Amethyst & Pearl Suffragette Lavalier Pendant / BroochPlatinum Diamond Pearl Cultured Necklace Vintage Fine Antique Real Victorian 8mmVintage 1958 Mikimoto Cultured Akoya Graduated Pearl Necklace W/ Box & Papers**estate Mikimoto Pearl 3 Strand Choker Necklace 13.5-14.75" 6mm 58.3 Grams 14k 18ct/ 18k Gold Victorian Seed Pearl Horse Shoe Ring, 750Antique Victorian 14k Gold Enameled Brooch/lavaliere Turquoise & Dangling PearlsAntique Vintage Deco 10k Gold Blue Sapphire Pearl Buttercup Lavaliere Necklace!Barbara Bixby 18kt Yellow Gold Sterling Pave' Topaz Pearl Cross Enhancer PendantAntique Austro Hungarian Silver Gilt Garnet & Pearl Brooch Pin 1900Antique 1860 Victorian Sterling Silver Turquoise Pearl Star Pendant/broochAntique Austro Hungarian Sterling Silver Garnet Pearl PendantVintage 14k Wg .45ct Diamond 7.5-7.9mm Akoya Pearl Graduated 3-strand NecklaceVintage 14k Gold 5-8mm Cultured Akoya Pearl Diamond 1950s Large Dangle EarringsEstate $2100 14k Yellow Gold 8.0 Mm Saltwater Cultured Pearl And Diamond Pendant Vintage Large Tahitian Pearl Necklace 14k Yellow Gold Chain 21" LengthVintage 3-strand Pearl & Blue Sapphire Gemstone Heart 14kt Gold Bracelet Nr18ct/ 18k Gold, Art Deco 9 Carat Amethyst, Diamond And Seed Pearl Drop EarringsAntique Vintage C 1880 Victorian 14k Gold Amethyst Glass Seed Pearl Ring! Sz 3Antique Victorian 14kt Rose Gold Seed Turquoise Pearl Garnet Locket Pendant Antique Vintage C 1940 Deco 14k Gold .36 C Diamond Akoya Pearl Spray Earrings9ct/ 9k Gold Amethyst,amber & Baroque Pearl Heavy Necklace, 375Antique Suffragette Bee Ring - 18ct Gold And Silver - Peridot Amethyst PearlBig Antique Victorian 10k Gold Pearl LocketAntique Vintage C. 1940 Art Deco 14k Gold Lustrous Akoya Pearl Tennis Bracelet!Diamond 13mm South Sea Pearl Platinum Ring 7.4 Grams Nr18ct/ 18k Gold Aquamarine & Seed Pearl Art Deco Brooch, 750Antique Vintage 1920 Art Deco 18k White Gold 7 Mm Akoya Pearl Sapphire Necklace!Vintage Chinese Carved Jade Baroque Pearl Silver Brooch Pin LargeVintage Crown Trifari Ornate Gold Tone Seed Pearl Choker Necklace Earrings SetPair Vintage Mikimoto Japanese Pearl & Sterling Silver Clip-on Earrings NrAntique Victorian 18k Gold Seed Pearl Date Brooch PinExcellent Vintage 9ct Gold Pearl And Garnet Pendant, Hallmarked 1989Pretty Victorian 15 Ct Gold Old Cut Genuine Diamond & Pearl Ring