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 Platinum 5.0ct Vs1/f Diamond/7mm Akoya Pearl 3-strand BraceletEstate Diamond 12mm South Sea Pearl Platinum Drop Earrings 14.4 Grams NrFine Victorian Art Nouveau Blue Stone And Seed Pearl 15ct Gold Pendant And ChainAntique French Victorian 18ct Rose Gold Pearl & Diamond Large Dormeuses EarringsAntique Edwardian Art Nouveau Peridot & Seed Pearl 9ct Gold PendantFine Pair Of Art Deco Sapphire, Diamond & Baroque Pearl 18ct Gold Drop Earrings1.00ct Diamond 12-20mm White South Sea Pearl Necklace 96.9 Grams NrAntique French Victorian 18ct Rose Gold Turquoise Pearl Dormeuses EarringsAntique Victorian Ruby, Pearl & Diamond Gold Ring Circa 1870 Uk Size O Usa 7 1/4Antique Victorian Bohemian Garnet Seed Pearl 1.25" Wide BraceletAntique Pearl 14k Gold Flower Link Bracelet 28.1 Grams NrFine Baroque Pearl And Diamond 14ct Gold Large PendantAntique 18ct Gold . Old / Rose Cut Diamond And Pearl Set Ring 19th CenturyCoppola E Toppo Black Gold Glass Pearl & Crystal Beaded Massive Collar NecklaceAntique Edwardian Art Nouveau Red Stone & Seed Pearl 9ct Gold PendantFine Victorian 18k Gold Filigree Work Natural Pearl Cross PendantFine Victorian Art Nouveau Amethyst & Seed Pearl Gold Pendant NecklaceEstate Diamond 9mm Lustrous Gray Pearl 14k Gold Ring 6.5 Grams NrFine Pair Of Victorian Tourmaline And Seed Pearl Gold Drop EarringsAntique Heavy Platinum Beautiful 4.0ct Diamond/5.6mm Pearl Flower BroochFine Victorian Tourmaline & Seed Pearl 18ct Gold Locket Back Ring.Fine 18ct Gold Turquoise Coral & Pearl Ring Size KAntique Victorian Georgian Paste Crystal Moonstone Pearl Heart Locket PendantFine Victorian Rare Enamel Seed Pearl 15ct Gold Locket Back Poison Ring.Heavy Vintage 14k Wg 2.80ct Diamond/blue Sapphire & 3.6mm Pearl Starburst BroochFinest Quality Antique Art Nouveau 18ct Gold Pendant Jugendstil Pearl & Pink NrHattie Carnegie Spotted Bug Beetle Pin W/ Turquoise Colored Cabochons & PearlsVtg 80s Givenchy Paris Gripoix Baroque Pearl Gilt Maltese Cross Runway NecklaceFine Pair Of Victorian Art Nouveau Baroque & Seed Pearl 15ct Gold Drop EarringsBeautiful Antique .375 9ct Gold Amethyst & Seed Pearl Bar Brooch, 1.63g- V29 B29Antique Austro Hungarian Silver Gilt Bird/dove Earrings Garnet Pearl & Emerald14k Diamond Black Opal Pearl Victorian Pendant Box Fine Heavy Huge 3.10 Carats Heavy Vintage 1950s Platinum 2.0ct Vs Diamond & 5 To 7.9mm Pearl Cluster BroochFine Pair Of Victorian 1 Carat Diamond And Baroque Pearl Gold Drop EarringsAntique Victorian Edwardian 18k Gold Fleur De Lis Seed Pearl Pendant Brooch Pin 1800s Victorian 14k Yellow Gold 0.40 Ct Natural Light Blue Tourmaline Pearl RingVictorian 12ct. Gold Ring With Amethysts And PearlsVintage 1950s 14k Wg Beautiful .27ct Diamond 6.3mm Pearl Double Strand NecklaceVintage 14k Gold Pearl And Ruby Heart Pendant & 16 Inch Necklace Vintage Navajo Liberty Barber Naja Coin Squash Blossom Sterling Pearls Necklace!Fine Baroque Pearl And Diamond 14ct Rose Gold Cluster PendantFine Pair Of Diamond & Cultured Pearl White Gold Earrings With Matching PendantVintage 14k Gold Pearl Coral Turquoise Sapphire Hinged Grand Piano Charm/pendantHeavy Vintage 18k Gold Beautiful Pearl Cluster Florentine Flower BroochFine Large & Heavy Victorian Style 7ct Citrine & Seed Pearl Gold Cluster RingGenuine Vintage Mikimoto Cultured Pearl Earrings, Silver & 14k Ear Wires $1 NrBeautiful 9ct Rose Gold Turquoise & Seed Pearl Victorian Locket Brooch C1860Massive 9.5mm Vintage Japanese Akoya Pearl .70cttw Fine Diamond Post EarringsA Stunning Quality Victorian Oval 12.00 Carat Amethyst & Seed Pearl 9 Ct Gold Antique Victorian 9ct Gold Brooch Set With Garnet Cabochon Abd Seed Pearl.Fine Antique Victorian 10k Gold Shell Cameo Seed Pearl Pendant Necklace & ChainBeautiful Victorian Gold, Citrone & Seed Pearl Coronet Heart Shaped PendantEstate Diamond 11mm South Sea Pearl 18k Gold Drop Pendant NrVintage Deja Brooch W/ Rhinestone & Pearl Stargazer Lily Bouquet, 1939-40Estate Sapphire 6mm Lustrous Pearl 14k Gold Stud Earrings Nr14k Yellow Gold Turquoise And Pearl Ring Size 7 Victorian ~ No Reserve ~Designer Mabe Pearl 18k Gold Silver Dangle Earrings 8.3 Grams NrRare Find! Antique Georgian Natural Seed Pearls Earrings & Necklace & BroochMagnificent Victorian 18k Solid Gold Seed Pearl Lavalier Necklace No Scrap 7.7g Retired Vintage James Avery 14 Karat Yellow Gold Pearl Ring Size 7