Pearls are amongst the most ancient precious gems in the world, and since their discovery they are also the most appreciated and the most desired of all jewels.




Portrait of young woman, 1st century A.D. , Egypt, Antikensammlung, Berlin

Pearls have always been considered fascinating by all ancient populations. They were an appanage for their sovereigns in China, they were worn by both men and women in India and were considered divine, and were used as a monetary purpose along with diamonds and emeralds.It was thanks to Alexander the Great that the West came to know about pearls. They were a symbol of wealth and prestige for the Romans, they were used in wedding ceremonies as a symbol of purity and love for the Greeks, and the Arab culture considered them to be one of the greatest treasures of Paradise.

For many years, pearls were associated with luxury, wealth and power because of the price, and only wealthy people could afford them. Respectable Roman married woman wore them as earrings, necklaces and brooches, later Roman and Byzantine Emperors wore them by copying their counterparts in the Far East who wore crowns and tiaras decorated with pearls and other precious stones. In the centuries that followed after Christ and during Medieval times, they were sewn on the capes of princes and kings, on military gear, and on the headgear of Popes and other religious figures. Precious stones, gold and pearls were a privilege reserved for monarchs and for the church.

Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, XI-XII century, Hofburg, Wien
Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of  Eleonora da Toledo with her son Giovanni, about 1545, Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze

Many small shops opened up in the Flanders and the Duchy of Burgundy, and later across Europe, where artisans became skilled in selecting, cutting and finishing precious stones, to create elegant jewellery and accessories for European sovereignty who requested new creations to flaunt at their gatherings. Garments and capes, as well as ladies’ hats and hair accessories, pins and brooches of the royal court were adorned with pearls and gems, and with gold and silver threads. Evidence of this huge production of jewellery can be found in the masterpieces of fourteenth and fifteenth century painters who faithfully depicted everyday life.

Painters would often visit the small shops of the artisan jewelers to study the color and lighting reflected by the stones and pearls so as to paint them to perfection, and they also designed jewels for themselves and for rich clients. Italian artists followed suit thanks to the mercantile and financial contacts between Flanders and Florence or Venice. Refined clothing was made with prestigious material and jewelry was made with the most precious stones and pearls of the best quality during the 15th and 16th Century, as depicted in paintings of well-off Florentine families. The aristocrats in Venice also commissioned luxury items, and thus Venice became a leader in the trade of precious stones and pearls, as noblewomen would parade their jewellery and fashionable clothes. The emerging new rich merchants could later also afford such luxuries thanks to the high demand for such items that once belonged only to noble families.


Sandro Botticelli, La Primavera, 1480, Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze, detail of the Graces
Pendant with newt, Flemish goldsmith, 1580-1590, Museo degli Argenti, Palazzo Pitti, Firenze

This gave rise to goldsmiths and artisans who started creating their own businesses. Artisans started working on those pearls with irregular shapes, together with gold, precious and semi-precious stones, and ivory as the perfect, round pearls were extremely rare to find. They created what became known as baroque jewels, as well as pendants, human figurines, real and mythological animal figures, collectables and so on.

In the 18th Century, pearls with diamonds became popular, and the discovery of new gold mines that produced white gold contributed to the creation of floral motifs that represented nature.


These luxury jewels eventually reached Paris and other European royal courts. Soon jewellery was designed with pearls for the day and pearls for the evening. Teardrop pearls with diamonds were worn for important occasions, while round pearls were worn during the day, even by the middle class. Jewellery became smaller to cater for the new middle-class merchants. Jewellery took the shape of romantic symbols such as knots, bows, anchors and arrows together with the floral designs that already existed.

Jan Vermeer, Woman with pearl necklace , 1664, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin
Louise Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Marie Antoinette with the Rose, 1783, Musée National du Chateau, Versailles

Pearls became family heirlooms which could be transformed and adapted to the current fashion. Exotic pearls were introduced in the 19th Century in sets of necklaces, earrings, rings and bracelets. Governments encouraged their jewelers to increment their activity to sustain the economy in their country. Artisans turned to the arts of antique populations, Egyptians and even archaeological sites, as well as Gothic and Renaissance periods for new inspirations.


With Art Nouveau, jewelry was considered to be works of art, and every type of pearl, regardless of shape or color was used.


At the turn of the 20th Century, Japanese Kokichi Mikimoto discovered how to produce cultured pearls giving rise to a growing market for pearls of every type, size, and color making them more affordable. This extraordinary revolution together with important social changes which took place in the last Century where women were introduced into the workplace have contributed to changes in apparel and habits, social relationships and economic conditions giving everyone the opportunity to afford a piece of jewelry with a pearl.