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, 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    

Vintage 1950s 14k Wg Beautiful 2.42ct Vs Diamond/8.4mm Pearl Flower EarringsAntique Victorian Edwardian 14k Gold Aquamarine Pearl Pendant Lavaliere NecklaceVintage Art Nouveau Diamond Turquoise Pearl 14k Gold Pin 7.1 Grams NrEstate Diamond Baroque Pearl 14k Gold Necklace 170.6 Grams 40 Inch NrAntique Heavy Platinum Beautiful 4.0ct Diamond/5.6mm Pearl Flower BroochVintage Pearl 18k Gold Double Strand Criss Cross Bracelet 31.9 Grams NrPair Victorian Revival 14k Gold Salmon Pink Angelskin Coral Seed Pearl EarringsFine Victorian Amethyst And Seed Pearl Rose Gold Cluster Ring.Antique Turquoise & Pearl Cluster 9ct Solid Gold EarringsVintage Triple Strand Cultured Pearl 6-5-7.0 Necklace W/ 14k Clasp, 76.8 GramsStunning Pair Of Art Nouveau Victorian Seed Pearl & Peridot Gold Drop EarringsLovely Art Nouveau 9 Ct Gold Peridot & Seed Pearl Heart Shaped Pendant DropOutstanding, Rare Antique C1890 Solid 15ct Gold Coral & Seed Pearl Set RingFine Victorian 10 Carat Amethyst And Seed Pearl Gold BroochStunning Victorian Art Nouveau 15k Gold Seed Pearl & Peridot Pendant On ChainEstate 16.00 Mm Natural Tahitian Pearl 14k White Gold Vintage NecklaceVintage Ladies 14k Gold Salmon Pink Angel Skin Coral & Seed Pearl Ring Sz 7 NrAntique Victorian Silver Gilt Fly Bug Brooch, Opal, Garnet And Seed Pearls BoxedMikimoto 7mm Pearl 14k Yellow Gold Leaf Screw Back Earrings 6.2 NrEstate 9mm Mobe Pearl 14k Gold Drop EarringsLarge Vintage 14k Yellow Gold Mings Of Honolulu Pearl Pin 2-1/8 By 1-1/4" Box Estate 8mm Gray Pearl Sapphire 14k Gold Floral Pin 6.0 Grams NrFinest Antique Victorian 9ct Gold Pearl Turquoise Spiders Web Pendant & ChainMikimoto 18k Akoya Pearl Necklace 32" Opera Length Single Strand 6.5mm 48.2grVintage Couture Chanel 5 Cc Logo Necklace Sautoir Black Turquoise Cobalt Pearl Estate Tahitian Baroque South Sea Pearl 18k Gold Choker Necklace 51.5 Grams NrAntique Genuine Pearl Necklace 14ct 585 Solid White Gold Clasp Old Cut Diamonds24" Double Strand 6.5mm Salt Water Cultured Pearl 14k White Gold Clasp NecklaceTriple Strand Salt Water Cultured Pearl 14k White Gold Diamond Clasp Necklace NrVintage 14k Yellow Gold Pin With Large Coral Tree And Pearl 19.6 GramsVintage Mikimoto 7mm Pearl 14k Gold Choker Necklace 26.8 Grams NrVtg Old Pawn Navajo Sterling Silver Bench Bead Pearl Necklace 21.5" Long D18Fine Victorian 9 Ct Gold Citrine & Seed Pearl Set BroochMikimoto 18k Akoya Pearl Bracelet Triple Strand 6.5mm White Pearls 30.1 GramsFine Victorian Gold, Banded Agate And Whitby Jet And Seed Pearl Mourning PendantVintage Estate Art Deco Pearl Diamond Sapphire Ring No ReserveAntique Victorian Edwardian 14k Gold Onyx & Seed Pearl Mourning Locket NecklaceAntique 14k Gold Seed Pearl Diamond Heart Pendant Brooch PinAntique 9ct Rose Gold Almondine Garnet & Seed Pearl Set Necklace Pendant C. 1895Garnets Pearl & Rose Cut Diamonds Antique 14k Gold Bee Or Insect Bar Pin NrFine Vintage Estate Mikimoto 14k Gold Pearl Dangle Pierced EarringsArt Deco 12.57ctw Natural Australian Opal Diamond Akoya Pearl 14k Gold PendantSuperb Art Nouveau Solid 9 Carat Gold Turquoise & Pearl BroochVtg 80s Givenchy Paris Gripoix Baroque Pearl Gilt Maltese Cross Runway NecklaceVintage Mikimoto Cultured Pearls 5.0-5.5mm Necklace 23" W/red Velvet Case Signed Mikimoto 14k Gold Salt Water Cultured Akoya Pearl Necklace W Orig Box NrAntique Large Solid 15ct Gold Seed Pearl Swallow Brooch Near Mint ConditionCustom 14k Gold Keshi Pearl Pear Shape Ruby & Diamond Ladies Dinner Ring Size 6Antique White Pearl 18k Gold Cocktail Ring NrTiffany & Co. Pearl Necklace With Emeralds And Diamonds 9 Strand Vintage 1972Pair Edwardian 14k White Gold 1/2 Carat Tw Diamond 9.25mm Pearl Drop Earrings NrVintage Navajo Handmade Heavy Navajo Pearl Antique Sterling Silver Bead NecklaceBeautiful Antique Belle Epoque French Art Nouveau 18ct Diamond Pearl RingVintage 5.50ct Moon Stone Seed Pearl 14k Gold Ring 8.3 Grams NrAntique 15ct Citrine & Pearl 18mm Wide BroochAntique Victorian Solid 9ct Gold Amethyst & Seed Pearl BroochSigned Ciner Brooch Black & Natural Pearls & Rhinestones Asian Woman ^cAntique Quality 9ct. Rose Gold Amethyst & Pearl Set Oval Pendant. No ReserveMikimoto Vintage Graduated 3.5-7.5mm Pearl Strand Necklace 22" Orig Box Nores!Rare Vintage Estate Mikimoto Sterling Silver Pearl Ring