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    

Stunning Rare Art Nouveau Murelle Bennett Amethyst And Pearl Gold Cluster RingFine Pair Of Victorian Art Nouveau Cultured & Seed Pearl 18ct Gold EarringsStunning Heavy Rare Georgian Garnet And Seed Pearl Gold Cluster RingGenuine Antique C.1880's Victorian Gold Seed Pearl Chandelier Dangle Earrings Pair Of Art Deco Design 18k Large Cultured Pearl & 72 Point Diamond EarringsFine Victorian Art Nouveau Cultured And Seed Pearl 15ct Gold PendantFine Pair Of Art Deco Design Diamond And Cultured/seed Pearl 14ct Gold EarringsFine Victorian Diamond And Seed Pearl 18ct Gold RingFine Victorian Art Nouveau Seed Pearl 15ct Gold Cluster RingStunning Art Deco 14k Gold Sapphire & Seed Pearl Pendant On ChainVintage 4-strand Cultured Pearl & Blue Sapphires 14k Bracelet Jewelers AppraisalStunning Pair Of Art Deco 98 Point Diamond And Cultured Pearl Platinum EarringsFine Victorian Art Nouveau Diamond And Seed Pearl 15ct Gold BangleFine Pair Of Victorian Enamel Seed Pearl 14ct Gold EarringsAntique Diamond Pearl 18k Gold Wreath Round Pin 11.8 Grams NrRare Find! Antique Georgian Natural Seed Pearls Earrings & Necklace & BroochAntique Pearl 8.50ct Amethyst 14k Gold Drop Dangle Earrings 6.7 Grams NrMarco Bicego Tourmaine 9mm Grey Pearl 18k Gold Drop Earrings14.0 Grams NrAntique Rose Gold & Pearl Brooch With Painted Lovers Eye MiniatureFine Murelle Bennett Art Nouveau Peridot, Ruby & Pearl 15ct Gold PendantOscar De La Renta Haute Couture Gripoix Pearl Amethyst Cabochon Runway EarringsVintage 0.70ct Diamond Pearl Floral Leaf Motif 14k Gold Earrings 8.5 Grams NrFine Pair Of Victorian Cultured Pearl & Seed Pearl 15ct Gold EarringsFine Victorian Art Nouveau Sapphire And Seed Pearl 15ct Gold RingStunning Vintage Mikimoto Princess 60 Akoya Pearl Necklace W/ Silver Clasp NrFine Heavy Cultured Pearl Necklace With A 15ct Gold ClaspAntique French Graduated Akoya Pearl Necklace~old Mine Cut Diamond SolitaireFine Victorian Sapphire And Seed Pearl Rose Gold RingFine Cultured Pearl Necklace With A Gold Garnet ClaspSecessionist Jugendstil Art Nouveau German Gold Pearl Sapphire Antique BroochEstate Diamond Pearl 10k Gold Dangle Drop EarringsFine Pair Of Art Nouveau Design Cultured Pearl Gold EarringsFine Victorian Turquoise And Seed Pearl Gold BraceletFine Pair Of Victorian Art Nouveau Cultured & Seed Pearl 15ct Gold EarringsStunning Pair Of Art Deco Desgin Enamel & Cultured Pearl Gold EarringsFine Heavy Cultured Pearl Necklace With A Gold ClaspBeautiful Antique Edwardian 15ct Gold Glittering Aquamarine & Seed Pearls Brooch Antique Georgian Natural Seed Pearls Pendant& Cultured Pearls NecklaceAntique Victorian 14k Rose Gold Natural Seed Pearl Turquoise Fan Bypass RingHobe 4-pc Runway Costume Jewelry Set Pearls Clear & Red Rhinestones, Dated 19659ct Gold Art Nouveau Pendant Set With Citrine, Peridot & PearlFine Victorian Art Nouveau Seed Pearl Gold Pendant For RestorationAmethyst Peridot And Seed Pearl Pendant 18ct GoldFine Art Deco 3 Strand Cultured Pearl Necklace With A Silver ClaspFine Pretty Art Nouveau Victorian Amethyst & Seed Pearl Gold PendantEstate 6mm Pearl By Yard 14k Gold Chain Necklace 10.1 Grams NrFine Victorian 5 Carat Citrine And Seed Pearl Gold RingFine Art Nouveau Design Amethyst And Seed Pearl Gold Pendant And ChainSpecial Crown Trifari Rhinestone, Blue Enamel & Strand Of Pearls Dress ClipGeorgian Grand Tour Natural Seed Pearl Sapphire Emerald Necklace 18ct Gold CatchBarbara Bixby 18kt Gold Sterling Pearl Enamel Topaz Butterfly Omegaback EarringsAmazing Vintage 14k Gold Diamond 6-6.5mm Cultured Akoya Pearl 4 Strand BraceletAntique Ring-9k Gold?green Emerald-tiny Pearls-sz 7-nr!Antique Victorian 14k Yellow Gold Bangle Bracelet Etruscan Turquoise & PearlEstate Diamond 7mm White Pearl 14k Gold"v" Station Necklace 37.0 Grams NrRare Chanel Paris Vintage Gripoix Crystal Pearl Cc Brooch Pin Gold Tone 208 LogoVintage 1960's Navajo Pawn Sterling Silver Bench Beads Navajo Pearls NecklaceMid C19th Century Victorian Era 9ct Gold Etruscan Revival Diamond & Pearl Ring.Vintage Diamond 8mm Pearl 14k Gold Cocktail Ring 8.6 Grams NrFine Chester 1896 Victorian Seed Pearl 15ct Gold Mourning Ring