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The History and Symbolism of Pearl Jewelry

 

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

 

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

 

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

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 InstagramFacebook, or Twitter, or in the comments section!

 

COMMENTS

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 (https://www.brilliantearth.com/contact/), live chat on our website, or call at 800.691.0952. Thanks for you interest in Brilliant Earth!

SOLyMAR Says:
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!

RACHEL MCGUIRE Says:
April 21st, 2016 at 7:57 am

PPRECIOUS PEARL

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.
Sincerely,
JMM

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: https://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

Now
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.

Janet Smith Says:
November 6th, 2016 at 11:11 pm

Love Concho pearls

Soraya Tiffer Vargas Says:
November 7th, 2016 at 3:39 pm

Very interesting

Felice Cohen Says:
November 9th, 2016 at 6:53 am

My husband who just passed away in July gave me a 16inch necklace of cultured pearls which I made into an 18 or 20 inch necklace, I seem to like necklaces longer. I wear them on special occasions and love them very much. also have costume jewelry of several colored pearls.

LizM Says:
November 11th, 2016 at 4:49 am

Why don’t you answer the questions instead of circumventing the questions. Rude

Holly DeAmelia Says:
November 23rd, 2016 at 6:46 am

I have always loved pearl jewelry, even as a child. My husband has given me a ring, bracelet, earrings and necklace. When I wear these pieces I think I love and care for them as though they were children. There is just something very romantic about pearl jewelry, I feel you can never have enough!!

Joyce Andaloro Says:
November 24th, 2016 at 8:00 am

Pearls have always been my favorite piece of jewelry. First and foremost, they can be worn with any other gemstone without any intrusion. My husband gave me a string of pearls on my wedding day to wear with my gown. It is 60 years later and the pearls are as beautiful as the day I received them. By far, my favorite piece of jewelry, which I will hand down to my daughter.

Terri Says:
November 25th, 2016 at 2:37 pm

Pearl is my birthstone. I love them and have several pieces. I have a ring from my high school graduation, earrings and necklace as a wedding gift from my husband and a few other bracelets that I bought just because. Thank you for the article.

Grammiered@gmail.com Says:
December 30th, 2016 at 9:03 pm

i enjoyed reading more about pearls, and the care of them

G. Brumfield Says:
February 27th, 2017 at 2:06 am

I was in junior high school, when I realized, that if I wore only jewelry that was valuable, I probably wouldn’t have any. Instead, I’d just wear stuff that was pretty.
30 years later, I’ve become a clothes horse(the familiar problem of budget not being equal to tastes lol), so I say that all my jewellery is gimcracks. I have various items of pearls, hard to pick a favorite. A pearl belt, a thick strand to tie, a rope, stud earrings of course, but I think my favorite is a single pearl on a rather long, very delicate, plain gold chain.
Several years ago, I went to a church service to hear a missionary speak who had just returned from Tahiti. I slathered on all my pearls I could manage, to compare them to the natural pearls I was confident would be displayed there. Well, haha. Mine are pretty good, either cultured or simulated, but they might as well have come from a vending machine, next to natural pearls. Beautiful!

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