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 JewelHistory blog have been treated to her weekly (sometim… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Stunning Pair Of Cultured Pearl And 64 Point Diamond 18ct White Gold EarringsFine Vintage Victorian Revival 9k Gold Onyx Pearl Dangle EarringsAntique Victorian 14k Gold Enamel Pearl Slide Pendant NecklaceFine Pair Of Victorian Natural Coral And Seed Pearl 18ct Gold EarringsEstate 10.00 Mm Natural Japanese Salt Water Akoya Pearl Necklace 14k White GoldStunning Ultra Rare Suffragette Brooch C 1915 Silver Pearl Amethyst PeridotVintage Boxed 'mikimoto' Cultured Pearl 18" NecklaceVintage Signed “mb” Marcel Boucher Sterling/rhinestone/pearl Bird Brooch Pin YqzSuperb Antique 14k Filigree Gold Orange Coral & Pearl Cameo Bangle BraceletEstate 0.78ct Diamond 13mm Golden Color Pearl Stud Jacket Earrings 13.3 Grams NrFine Victorian Amethyst And Seed Pearl Rose Gold Cluster Ring.Superb Victorian 15ct Gold Seed Pearl And Pearl Set Bangle - BoxedArt Nouveau Design Garnet & Seed Pearl Love Heart Gold Locket Pendant On ChainDiamond 6.88ct Moonstone Opal Seed Pearl Emerald 9k Gold Pendant 6.0 Grams NrFine Pair Of Victorian Aquamarine,diamond & Pearl 15ct Gold Drop EarringsVictorian Nouveau Antique 14kt Gold Mine Cut Diamond Pearl Halo Ring G Vs2 FineEstate Diamond 13mm Golden South Sea Pearl 14k Gold Drop Pendant 6.0 Grams NrEdwardian 9ct Gold Suffragette Pendant Brooch~peridot, Amethyst & Pearl C 1900'sDesigner Lagos Caviar Estate Sterling/ 18k Gold Genuine Pearl Necklace Amethyst Fine Art Deco Design Heavy 18k Gold Cultured Pearl & 87 Point Diamond RingEstate Sapphire Emerald 8mm Lustrous Pearl 18k Gold Ring NrAntique Victorian 10k Soft Rose Gold Coral & Tiny Pearl Drop Earrings Hinge PostFine Victorian Natural Coral And Seed Pearl 15ct Gold BroochVintage 14k Yellow Gold Topaz Enameled Pearl EarringsVintage C1960’s Rhodium-clad/gold-tone Pave Rhinestone Pearl Bird Pin Brooch Yqz15ct Gold Dragon Griffin & Dagger Victorian 7 Diamond C1880 Brooch Ruby / PearlAntique 14k Gold Natural Pearl Enamel 4 Leaf Clover Crescent Moon Good Luck PinStunning 1897 Victorian Ruby And Seed Pearl 18ct Gold Marquise Ring.Stunning Pair Of Art Deco Diamond And Cultured Pearl 15ct Gold Earrings Fine Victorian 1.1/4 Carat Amethyst And Seed Pearl Gold Ring.Very Fine Antique 14k Gold Pearl & Blue Enamel Floral BraceletGorgeous Vintage 14k Yellow Gold Vs Diamond 10mm Genuine Pearl RingAntique Art Deco, Guilloche Enamel & Seed Pearl Earrings, 14k Ear Wires $1nrVintage Victorian Style 14kt Yellow Gold Etruscan Seed Pearl Earrings 5.9gr Fine Long Cultured Pearl Necklace With 14k Gold ClaspPair Beautiful Ladies 14k Gold Bright Cut Diamond Mabel Rain Drop Pearl EarringsAntique Victorian 14 K Light Rose Gold Seed Pearl Cluster Ring 2.5 Gr Size 5 3/4Antique Art Deco 14k Gold Onyx Pearl Lavalier PendantAmazing Antique 18k Gold Red Ruby Emerald Blue Sapphire Pearl Floral Brooch14k Golden South Sea Pearl Vintage Necklace Cultured Fine Boxed Rare Huge 13mmVintage .585 14ct Gold Heart Design Turquoise & Pearl Bar Brooch 2.44g - V12 B17Fine Large & Heavy 18k Gold Cultured Pearl PendantEmerald Onyx Diamond Lustrous Seed Pearl 9k Gold Long Ring NrFine Cultured Pearl 14k Gold NecklaceFabulous Victorian 18ct Gold Diamond And Seed Pearl Set Pendant & Matching ChainAntique Edwardian 15ct Gold & Pearl Pendant / Brooch C 1900'sFine Pair Of Victorian Art Nouveau Ruby & Pearl 15ct White Gold Drop EarringsFine Victorian Art Nouveau Garnet & Seed Pearl Gold Swallow Pendant On Chain9 Carat 9k Yellow & Rose Gold Victorian Mourning Hair Pearl Brooch Pin Antique Estate Vintage Pearl & Sq. Cut Diamond Drop Pendant Earrings 14k W GoldMikimoto Diamond 7mm Pearl 18k White Gold 3 Drop Pendant Necklace Nr9ct Rose Gold Pearl Seed & Diamond Sunburst Victorian Pendant Circa 1879Fine Antique Amethyst & Cultured Pearl Gold BraceletAntique Edwardian 15ct Gold Pin Bar Brooch Amethyst Seed Pearl Rare Vintage LotVintage Mikimoto Signed 5mm Cultured Pearl Necklace 24" Long 835 Silver Clasp Lapis Lazuli Seed Pearl Gold Drop Earrings 8.3 Grams NrOld Silver Marcasite+ Pearl Art Deco Drop Earrings, Pearl And 18ct Gold EarringsStunning Victorian Heavy 18k 'key To My Heart' Seed Pearl Sweetheart Brooch,ssFine Victorian Gold Mabe Pearl,emerald & Opal Bug Brooch,boxed14k Solid Gold Top Quality Antique Victorian Abalone Pearl Ring Sz 6.25 Amazing