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    

J. Stella 11.75ctw Flawless Diamond 15mm Tahitian Pearl Platinum Fleur NecklaceHeavy Vintage 18ct Gold Cabochon Emerald Diamond 3 Row Pearl NecklaceAntique Diamond Pearl Coral Bead 14k Gold Long Necklace 83.7 Grams NrStunning Pair Of Victorian 6 Carat Amethyst And Seed Pearl Gold Drop EarringsFine Rare 19th Century White Sapphire,opal And Seed Pearl 18ct Gold NecklaceEstate 0.30ct Diamond 12mm Black Pearl 14k Gold Ring NrEstate 0.27ct Diamond 12mm Lustrous Pearl 14k Gold Drop Earrings 6.9 Grams NrEstate 12.30 Mm Natural South Sea Tahitian Pearl 14k White Necklace Salt WaterStunning 1.80 Carat Diamond,ruby,pearl And Emerald 18ct Gold Drop EarringsAntique Edwardian 9ct Gold Aquamarine Pearl Lavaliere Pendant & Chain In CaseStunning Art Deco Diamond And Genuine Pearl 18ct White Gold PendantUnusual Vintage Estate Chinese Natural Amethyst & Seed Pearl Bead NecklaceAntique 9ct Gold Charles Horner Brooch Seed Pearl Chester 1909 Art Nouveau RareAntique 18ct Gold Turquoise Seed Pearl Ladies BraceletVintage Diamond 11mm South Sea Pearl Platinum Ring 8.8 Grams NrFine Pair Of Art Deco Design Diamond And Pearl 15ct Gold Drop EarringsVintage String Of Genuine Mikimoto Cultured Pearls Stg Silver Clasp Box & CertifAntique 9ct Gold Seed Pearl Horseshoe Bangle BraceletAntique French 18ct Gold Seed Pearl Ladies Chain Necklace 16 InchesAntique 9ct Gold Turquoise Pearl Heart RingAntique French Silver & Gold Pendant With Grisaille Miniature Painting & PearlsVintage Mikimoto Graduated Pearl Necklace & 18k Gold ClaspAntique Victorian 14k Gold Snake Figural Amethyst Eyes Seed Pearl Ring Sz 5 1/2Vintage 1950s 14k Wg 4.50ct Diamond/8-8.55mm Akoya Pearl Double Strand NecklaceMassive Wide Ciner «gripoix/baroqueFine Victorian Jet And Seed Pearl Silver Locket Pendant And ChainAntique Victorian Opal, Emerald & Seed Pearl Ring In 10k Gold Sz 6.5Finest Antique Victorian 15ct Gold Sweetheart Seed Pearl Ruby Ring 1875Vintage 18k Wg Fancy Elegant 1.18ct Vs Diamond/7.3mm Pearl Multi-strand BraceletUnique Huge 12-14mm Cultured Grey South Sea Tahitian Pearl Vintage 14k Gold RingFine 19th Century Art Nouveau Peridot And Seed Pearl Gold Pendant And Chain14k Gold 4 Strand Cultured Pearl Necklace Vintage Mint Big 14k Sea Shell ClaspAntique Edwardian 9ct Gold Star Design Cultured Pearl Brooch 1913 BirminghamXtra Long 14k White Gold Diamond 7-7.5mm Cultured Akoya Pearl 1950s NecklaceFinest Antique Edwardian 9ct Gold Suffragette Pearl Emerald Amethyst RingFine Black Pearl 14k Gold RingMiriam Haskell Vintage Oval Floral & Leaf Baroque Pearl Brooch Estate Item Nr!Jumbo! Funky 14k Yellow Gold Vintage Brooch With Pearls! Exceptional! #e36Rare Victorian 9ct Gold Puffy Heart Locket - Pendant Seed Pearl Set *stunning*Vintage 1950s Heavy 14k Wg .54ct Vs/g Diamond/7.15mm Pearl Cluster Cocktail RingAntique Chester 9ct Gold Garnet Seed Pearl Garnet Oval LocketStunning Art Deco Mabe Pearl And Diamond 18ct Gold PendantHeavy Vintage 12k Gold Amazing 25.0ct Blue Sapphire/pearl Hinged Bangle BraceletEstate Lustrous Pearl 18k Gold Hoop Dangle Earrings 8.2 Grams NrFine Mikomoto Cultured Pearl 14ct Gold Pendant And ChainFine Small Pair Of Victorian Style 18k Gold Pearl EarringsFine 1886 Victorian Seed Pearl 15ct Gold RingHeavy Vintage 18k Gold 3.20ct Vs1/g Diamond/15.8mm Mabe Pearl Clip-on EarringsFinest Antique Victorian 15ct Gold Five Stone Amethyst Seed Pearl Ring 1880Vintage Chanel Gripoix Baroque Pearl, Ruby Red Emerald Green Necklace Drop Rare!Vintage Old Dead Pawn Sterling Silver Navajo Pearl Saucer Beads NecklaceStylish Art Nouveau Austro Hungarian Silver Seed Pearl Malachite & Ruby BraceletAntique 15ct Gold Peridot Pearl Bar BroochFrench Antique 18ct Yellow Gold Diamond Pearl RingMiriam Haskell Amazing Baroque Style Pearl Rhinestone Golden Leaves Bracelet SetAntique Edwardian 9ct Gold Amethyst & Seed Pearl Trilogy Ring C1900 - Size Q!Vintage Les Bernard Haute Couture Runway Mod Pearl & Black Jet NecklaceFine Heavy Pair Of Art Deco 18k Gold Cultured Pearl & Diamond Cluster EarringsMiriam Haskell Vintage Baroque Pearl Style Ornate Floral Brooch Estate Item Nr!Miriam Haskell Vintage Pearl Style Floral & Leaf Brooch Estate Item Nr!