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    

Stunning Pair Of Art Deco Platinum Diamond & Cultured Pearl Drop EarringsFine Pair Of Victorian 70 Point Diamond And Cultured Pearl 18ct Gold EarringsFine Victorian 18k Gold Natural Pearl & Diamond Cluster RingAntique Platinum Diamond & Natural Pearl Gold Earrings Circa 1900Vintage Ladies 14kt Yellow Gold Mabe Pearl & Diamond Choker Necklace, NrStunning Victorian 18ct Gold Ruby And Culturd Pearl Pendant Necklace *fine Quality Mikimoto 7.5-8 Mm 28" 18k Yellow Gold Pearl Strand Necklace Fine Victorian Design Multi Gem Stone & Sedd Pearl Gold Drop Pendant NecklaceModern 0.75ct Diamond Tahitian 9mm Pearl 14k White Gold Earrings 12.4 Grams NrAntique C 1880 Victorian 18k Yellow Gold Etruscan Revival Pearl Estate Earrings!Antique Georgian Rose Gold Garnet & Seed Pearl Mourning Brooch.Stunning Heavy Victorian 20 Carat Amethyst And Seed Pearl 15ct Gold BroochStunning Art Deco .375 9ct Gold Pearl & Turquoise Drop Pendant On Chain- V30 N08Antique 1950s Genuine Mikimoto Pearl High Quality Ultra Fine Long 20 In NecklaceModern Diamond South Sea Pearl 14k White Gold Pendant Necklace 6.3 Grams NrTop Quality White Australia South Sea Pearl, Diamond & Solid 14k Gold Pendant NrFine Pair Of Art Deco Design Diamond Cluster & Black Pearl 18k Gold EarringsSuperb Antique Georgian 15ct Gold Coral & Pearl Triple Prong Hair CombFine Victorian Natural Seed Pearl 18k Gold RingVtg Signed Miriam Haskell Large 10mm Baroque Pearl Glass Bead 25 1/2” NecklaceFine Pair Of Victorian Art Nouveau Amethyst And Seed Pearl Gold Drop EarringsEstate Pearl 14k Gold Heart Pendant NrFine Victorian Art Nouveau Peridot And Seed Pearl 18ct Gold BroochAntique Black Onyx Seed Pearl 14k Rose Gold Pendant Necklace 82.1 Grams Nr** Stunning 14k Yellow Gold 2 Strand 7.4mm Pearl Necklace Diamond 62.9 Grams Antique Sapphire White Pearl Cluster 14k Gold Clip Back Earrings 15.4 Grams NrHeavy C1880 Antique Victorian 10k Rose Gold Gf Pearl Slide Thick Chain NecklaceOrnate .65 Ct. Diamond & Aaa Akoya Cultured Pearl 14k White Gold Drop EarringsAntique Earrings-14k Gold Earrings-5.9 Dwt-1.75in-pearls-turquoise-nr!Fine Novelty Victorian Style Diamond, Ruby & Cultured Pearl 14k Gold Bug PendantStunning Art Deco Design Black Pearl & Diamond 18k Designer Pendant On ChainFine Pair Of Art Deco Design Diamond, Ruby & Cultured Pearl 18k Drop EarringsVictorian 9ct Rosey Gold Ring With Pearl And Blue Guilloche Enamel C 1880'sFine Pair Of Heavy 18k Gold Flower Diamond & Cultured Pearl Drop EarringsFine Ruby And Cultured Pearl 18ct Gold Cluster RingEstate Mabe White Pearls 14k Yellow Gold Earrings 13.8 Grams Nr** Elegant Jade And Pearl Necklace 117.1 Grams 14k White Gold 25" 7.1-11.1mm Modern Amethyst Purple Tahitian Pearl Silver 18k Gold Pendant 8.9 Grams NrAntique C. 1920 Art Deco 14k Yellow Gold 8 Mm Tahitian Pearl Estate Necklace!Vintage Mikimoto 17” Chocker Necklace With Pearls 18k Gold 750 ClaspFine Victorian Ruby And Seed Pearl 18ct Gold Locket Back RingVintage Mikimoto 25" Graduated Pearl Necklace Sterling Silver Clasp W/ BoxLarge Navajo Sterling Silver Graduated Pearl Bead Necklace Roy Vandever | Rs OxVintage Elsa Schiaparelli Signed Rare Massive 5 Strand Pearl & Crystal NecklaceSpectacular Antique 1800's Victorian 15ct Pearl Garnet Aquamarine Ring Hallmarks14k Vintage Authentic Mikimoto Pearl Drop PendantGenuine Rainbow Lustre Mabe Pearl 14k Gold Bamboo Leaf Japanese Vintage PendantAntique Blue Sapphire Ruby Pearl 14k Gold Chandelier Earrings 10.8 Grams NrFine Large Two Strand Cultured Pearl Necklace With Gold & Diamond Clasp** Sterling Silver Large Black Pearl Necklace 87.9 Grams 11.6-14.96mm 17" Edwardian 9 Ct Rose Gold Expanding Bracelet Set With Sapphires & Seed PearlsFine Antique Genuine Pearl Necklace With Gold ClaspEarrings-14k Gold-20 Tiny Diamonds-pearl?1 Inch-white Gold-nr!Antique Victorian Wide 10k Rose Gold Blue Stone Seed Pearl Ring Ornate DesignAntique C. 1920 Deco 14k Gold Persian Turquoise Akoya Pearl Repair Necklace!Beautiful Estate 10k Yellow Gold Cultured Pearl & Diamond Bracelet Retail $1700Vtg Antique Blue Rhinestone Pearl Jewelry Craft Lot - Brooch Wedding BouquetStunning Victorian 12 Carat Amethyst And Seed Pearl 18ct Gold Large & Heavy RingVintage Signed Art Deco Czech Givre Glass Emerald Pearl Enamel Pendant NecklaceAntique Victorian, Good Quality, 9ct Gold Ruby & Pearl Set Bangle,