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    

Fine 19th Century 14k Rose Gold Diamond & Genuine Pearl RingFine Victorian Syle Garnet And Seed Pearl Gold Double Cluster RingAntique 9ct Gold Turquoise Seed Pearl Lavaliere Pendant NecklaceFine Heavy Victorian Amethyst And Baroque Pearl 15ct Gold PendantFine Art Deco 14k Rose Gold Sapphire & Seed Pearl RingRare Antique Victorian 10k Gold & Filled Opal Garnet Pearl 14 Slide Bracelet14k Mikimoto Diamond Pearl Bracelet Box Vintage Deco 3 Strand Cuff Estate 8mm!!Mikimoto Pearl Necklace Box Designer Vintage Hallmarked 20" Long Fine 6.5mmFine Pair Of Heavy Victorian Amethyst And Baroque Pearl 15ct Gold Drop EarringsStunning Pair Of Victorian Cultured Pearl And Diamond 15ct Gold Drop EarringsStunning Victorian 3/4 Carat Sapphire And Pearl Gold Cluster RingFine Large And Heavy Victorian Art Nouveau Turquoise & Seed Pearl Gold RingTiffany & Co 14k Diamond Tahitian Pearl Vintage Necklace Rose Box Huge 12.50 Mm!Fine Victorian Art Nouveau Seed Pearl 15ct Gold Cluster RingFine Victorian Enamel, Pearl And Diamond 15ct Gold BroochStunning Pair Of Victorian Cultured Pearl And Opal 15ct Gold Drop EarringsFine Victorian Turquoise,seed Pearl & Baroque Pearl Art Nouveau Gold PendantAntique Georgian Genuine Seed Pearl Necklace ~ Pendant Drop & Gold Clasp 1800'sSuperb Antique Art Deco Period Platinum Diamond & Pearl Drop Dangle EarringsFine Victorian Art Nouveau Sapphire, Seed Pearl & Aquamarine 18ct Gold BroochRare Edwardian 1902 15ct & Gold Seed Pearl Edward Vii Coronation Brooch Fine Pair Of Victorian Amethyst And Seed Pearl Gold Drop Cluster EarringsFine Victorian Banded Agate & Seed Pearl Enamel 14ct Gold Locket Back Ring~stunning 14k Solid Gold And Blue Guilloche Enamel & Pearl Locket Pendant Charm~Lot Of 14 Chinese Silver Filigree Rings Coral Jade Pearls Export Antique Fine Victorian Art Nouveau Seed Pearl Gold Pendant And ChainStunning Heavy Victorian Art Nouveu Enamel Seed Pearl 18ct Gold Locket PendantStunning ! Vintage Large Natural Pearl Set 18ct Gold & Diamond Earrings Fine Pair Of Heavy Victorian Garnet And Baroque Pearl Gold Drop EarringsAntique Victorian Gold Filled Pearl Mesh Slide Bracelet Vintage 14k Ylw Gold Ming's Of Honolulu Double Strand Pearl Necklace, 14k ClaspFine Victorian Amethyst And Baroque Pearl Gold PendantVintage 14k Pearl Clasp Pale White Salmon Natural Coral Bead Necklace 22" LengthFine Pair Of 18k Gold Cultured Pearl EarringsStunning Victorian Amethyst And Seed Pearl 15ct Rose Gold Pendant NecklaceAntique 15ct Gold & Seed Pearl Heart Pendant CharmFine Art Deco 18k Gold Amethyst,diamond & Cultured Pearl Drop EarringsVictorian Antique English 9ct Gold Enamel Pearl & Ruby Locket Back Heart PendantAntique 14k Yellow Gold Pearl Turquoise Floral Drop Dangle EarringsVtg 80s Christian Dior French Couture Lapis Pearl Tassel Sautoir Runway NecklaceFine Large Antique Victorian 14k Solid Gold Black Enamel Pearl Brooch2vintage Ming's Of Honolulu Double Strand Cultured Pearl Bracelet,14k ClaspFine 3 Strand Natural Opal Necklace With Gold Garnet And See Pearl ClaspVtg Oscar De La Renta Haute Couture Pearl Crystal Tassel Runway Sautoir NecklaceVtg Multi Chain Renaissance Revival 800 Silver Amethyst Pearl Festoon Necklace Rare Ornate Vintage Miriam Haskell Baroue Pearl Rhinestone Leaf NecklaceStunning Art Deco Cultured Pearl And Sapphire 14ct Gold RingRare Chanel, Vintage, Ccs, Coco, Logo, Gold, Pearl, Long Chain, NecklaceFine Pair Of Victorian 15k Gold Baroque & Seed Pearl Enamel EarringsFine Cultured Pearl Necklace With An Emerald 14ct Gold ClaspAntique Australian Gold, Pearl And Pink Stone Brooch In Case Art Deco C1920Antique Victorian Solid 10k Gold Ruby & Seed Pearl Ring $9.99 Ornate DesignEstate Find..rare Sterling Vermeil Pearl Cloisonne Enamel Bracelet ChineseVintage Genuine Cultured Pearl Double Strand Bracelet 14k Clasp With Carved JadeVictorian Solid 9ct Yellow Gold Seed Pearl Set 'sunflower' Stud EarringsFine Victorian Art Nouveau Diamond & Seed Pearl 15ct Gold Moon Brooch, BoxedLarge Victorian 9ct Gold Seed Pearl Lavalier Pendant Necklace - Original ChainAntique Genuine Seed Pearl Brooch With Painted Lovers Eye Miniature C 1800'sVintage Genuine Cultured Pearl Double Strand Necklace 14k Clasp W Carved JadeFine Victorian Art Nouveu Seed Pearl Gold Brooch