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.

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