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The History and Symbolism of Pearl Jewelry

Celeste Perron

Pearl Pendant


Pearls are unique among gemstones because they don’t arise from the depths of the earth but from the sea. They require no special cutting or polishing to maximize their lustrous beauty, which has been treasured since ancient times and ensures that pearl jewelry is always in style.

The History of Pearl Jewelry

Pearls were used in jewelry at least as far back as ancient Greece, and until the 20th century pearls were one of the most valued gems, if not the most valuable, in many cultures. The rules of the Byzantine empire dictated that only the emperor was allowed to wear pearls, and other societies had rules about who could and could not wear these little treasures. The sixteenth century in England was known as the Pearl Age, reflecting the prestige carried by pearls at that time.

Pearls became more accessible in the early 1900s once people in Asia discovered how to create cultured pearls. By carefully placing a small nucleus into a living oyster, a pearl forms around the nucleus, allowing pearls to be created in oyster farms.

The Symbolism of Pearls


In many ancient societies pearls symbolized the moon and were imbued with magical properties. Ancient Chinese civilizations believed that wearing pearls protected a person from fire and dragons, and other cultures have associated them with chastity and modesty. In Victorian England small seed pearls were often used in mourning jewelry to symbolize tears.

Pearls as Gifts


grace kelly

Pearls have long been exchanged as gifts. When 13th century explorer Marco Polo visited Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan he reportedly presented him with the stunning Arco Valley Pearl, which weighs in at 575 carats and is more than three inches long (the pearl was auctioned off in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and its whereabouts are unknown). A famously beautiful pearl called La Peregrina was given by Prince Phillip II of Spain to his bride Mary during the 16th century. La Peregrina, a white, pear-shaped saltwater pearl, had a series of royal owners until the 1960s, when actor Richard Burton gave it to his jewelry-obsessed wife Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor had a necklace of pearls and rubies designed to showcase La Peregina.

Although famous for singing that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” one of Marilyn Monroe’s most treasured pieces of jewelry was a simple sixteen-inch string of pearls given to her by Joe DiMaggio during their honeymoon in Japan. Pearls were always a favorite accessory of 20th century style icon Grace Kelly, both during her screen star days and once she became Princess Grace of Monaco. Her husband Prince Rainier gave her a luxurious pearl-and-diamond jewelry set that she wore frequently.

Pearl Jewelry Today


Downton Abbey

If you’re looking for a spectacular piece of pearl jewelry, you can choose between new and antique pieces. Brilliant Earth offers stunning new pearl jewelry, such as our Tahitian Pearl Stud Earrings and Sea of Cortez Pearl Pendant with Diamond Accent, featuring pearls that have been sourced in an eco-friendly manner from sustainable pearl farms.

We also offer a large selection of vintage pearl jewelry in our curated Vintage Collection.  Small pearls are often used as accents in Victorian jewelry, and pearls were very popular during the Edwardian era, when the “white on white” effect of pearls or diamonds set in platinum or white gold bestowed the wearer with a look of feminine elegance. Pearls are also frequently found in Retro jewelry , often as the centerpiece of a ring and encircled by diamonds or more pearls to create an exuberant floral effect.

Caring for Pearl Jewelry

violette ring

The acid in perspiration can gradually damage pearls, so run a dry or damp cloth over pearls after you’ve worn them next to your skin. Be careful not to let perfume or other chemicals come into contact with your pearls, and keep them away from extreme heat (ie don’t use a hair dryer when wearing pearl jewelry or leave your jewelry in the sun).  If you follow those guidelines your pearls will stay gorgeous for decades and achieve heirloom status.

Final Thoughts

What is your favorite style of pearl jewelry?  Let us know on Facebook or Twitter, or in the comments section!



linda norris Says:
February 18th, 2016 at 5:25 pm

Were there rules for pearl wearing in the Edwardian/Victorian eras? If yes, what were they?

B. Earth Says:
February 19th, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Hi Linda,

If you have questions about vintage jewelry, our jewelry specialists would be more than happy to assist you. You can get in contact via email (http://www.brilliantearth.com/contact/), live chat on our website, or call at 800.691.0952. Thanks for you interest in Brilliant Earth!

March 13th, 2016 at 4:44 pm

Silver, never with gold.
My ex-husband had a garage sale when I left him in which he sold my pearl and diamond ring.

Charlene Says:
April 19th, 2016 at 4:07 pm

A couple of years ago, I purchased an 18″ string of quality pearls for my very young granddaughter’s graduation – 7 years down the road. As I am not liable to be around this earth, I have them stored in my jewelry chest — should I treat them in any special way.

B. Earth Says:
April 20th, 2016 at 10:39 am

Hi Charlene,

Our jewelry experts would be happy to assist you with your jewelry care questions at 1.800.691.0952. Thanks for your interest!

April 21st, 2016 at 7:57 am


Marie Martin Says:
April 22nd, 2016 at 4:55 am

I have a silver necklace and earrings set. Somewhere along the way an earring was lost. I’d like to have another made. The stones may not be real, but the set was given to me by my great Aunt Peggy. My daughter is getting married next 7/4/2017, and she’d like to follow in the family tradition of wearing it for her wedding. Can I send pictures of it to you so you can have a look-see? I would be grateful if you would do so, and give me an idea of your thoughts on copying a mirror image of the other earring. Thank you for your time.

B. Earth Says:
April 22nd, 2016 at 10:58 am

Hi Marie,

Our jewelry specialists would be happy to speak with you about your request, get more information about what you’re looking for, and look at the pictures you mentioned. Please call us at 1.800.691.0952 or use the live chat on our website. You can also learn more about our custom design process here: http://www.brilliantearth.com/custom-ring-design-process/. Thanks for your interest!

Janice Mercer Says:
June 3rd, 2016 at 3:00 pm

The pearl necklace. I received my first one when I was a flower girl at the age of eight.

Valerie Says:
July 1st, 2016 at 4:01 am

In the paragraph that begins with “Although famous for singing…,” the word “peals” needs to be corrected to “pearls.”

B. Earth Says:
July 1st, 2016 at 11:39 am

Hi Valerie,

Thanks for your sharp eye and pointing this out!

Elizabeth A Magill Says:
July 26th, 2016 at 8:19 am

necklace and earrings

edna hoppe Says:
July 27th, 2016 at 7:28 am

is their a different in price for so called black pearls compaired to the other color of pearls ?

B. Earth Says:
July 27th, 2016 at 11:01 am

Hi Edna,

Pearl pricing depends on a variety of factors, including color. Our jewelry specialists would be happy to answer any questions you have about buying pearls. You can call us at 1.800.691.0952 or use the live chat on our website. Thanks for your interest!

josie Says:
July 31st, 2016 at 10:18 am

What is the meaning of Pearls, and how do you know they are real with so many fakes around?

John Ridland Says:
July 31st, 2016 at 10:25 am

I have read that the 14th Century in England was known as the Age of Pearls, as well as the 16th. The prime literary evidence is the poem known as “Pearl” by an anonymous poet who also wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” . Both poems are worth a look. (For “Gawain” see Able Muse.com for my own translation. I am currently translating “Pearl” because other translations I think miss some of the fun.

mary thomas Says:
August 4th, 2016 at 2:35 am

I love pearls

Emmalou H. Kirchmeier Says:
August 11th, 2016 at 12:17 am

Ilost and want duplicated in white gold triple band in which three med size pearls were set between four small dimonds

B. Earth Says:
August 11th, 2016 at 11:28 am

Hi Emmalou,

Our jewelry specialists would be happy to assist you. Please call us at 1.800.691.0952 or use the live chat on our website. Thanks for your interest!

Mary Says:
August 12th, 2016 at 7:17 am

I have a question:

Do real pearls peal? I have a strand pf pearls and one pearl seems to be pealing. These are colored pearls in mint green and pink.

Ann Novelli Says:
August 18th, 2016 at 5:12 am

Hoe Blessed we are to have PEARLS!

joy Says:
August 20th, 2016 at 8:29 am

Your article on pearls were very informative, thank you. However, I was a bit disappointed that you could have included other ethnic people who also wear pearls which come from GOD; for all people. Thank you!

maria salmon Says:
August 21st, 2016 at 8:52 am

Enjoyed reading all about pearls. Have loved them all my life…

Dikea Edwards Says:
August 25th, 2016 at 1:47 am

I love, Love, LOVE Pearls. My dad got me a pearl necklace when I got married but, a not so good friend of the family stold it along with all my jewelry. That pig.

nayer Says:
August 27th, 2016 at 9:19 am

I wish,i know the differance of the real pearl and cultured.I baught anecklace and earring,from barcellona.Almost 30 years ago.until 20 years i didn’t know the difference!Is it worthy or just an ornement?I like to know.Yours.

Maggie Says:
August 27th, 2016 at 10:32 am

I’d like to know more about MABE’ pearls, their values as opposed to regular pearls.

Lauren Says:
August 27th, 2016 at 6:01 pm

My first ‘good’ piece of jewelry was from my parents, when I was 12. It was a pearl ring. It was then that the love affair began.

Wanita Tetreault Says:
August 28th, 2016 at 6:55 am

days people are dressing casual . I would like to wear my pearls more. Give me suggestions what to wear to my job as a newspaper sales rep.

mary hammond Says:
August 28th, 2016 at 11:31 am

have qraduate pair of small to med to lg my fav in short, short in solid med, long in med, all over 100 yrs old, a dbl ring med pearls, to match a circle pin with small pearls matches this collection very beautiful I only wear the graduated one my fav because it is different from everybody else going to sell the rest

B. Earth Says:
September 6th, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Hi Nayer,

Our jewelry specialists would be happy to speak with you about your questions. Please call us at 1.800.691.0952 or use the live chat on our website. Thanks for your interest!

B. Earth Says:
September 6th, 2016 at 2:56 pm

Hi Maggie,

Our jewelry specialists would be happy to speak with you about your questions. Please call us at 1.800.691.0952 or use the live chat on our website. Thanks for your interest!

Antonia M Estala Says:
September 7th, 2016 at 9:25 am

I love pearls which is the most precious, elegant and unique piece of jewelry that looks and goes with everything at any special occasion. Wear a pearl and feel special, attractive and stylish.

pikachu Says:
September 22nd, 2016 at 10:14 am

What did they call the tradition of giving one pearl for special occasions that was then added to the strand? It was popular in the early ’50s and ’60s.

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