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Pearls: Jewels from the Sea

The pearl has been a cherished adornment for millennia. Emblematic of classic style and refinement, its lustrous beauty is eternal.
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Necklace, French, House of Dior, late 1940s

Retrieved from the waters of the Indian Ocean since at least the first millennium B.C., the rare oyster pearl has been coveted worldwide for centuries. It was prized by many cultures, from the luxury-loving Hellenistic Greeks and Romans to the elites of Renaissance Europe.

In Mughal India the wearing and appreciation of jewels was viewed as an art in itself; in his memoirs the emperor Jahangir (ruled 1605–27) recorded his decisions to wear certain pearls for important occasions. In China, where pearls are esteemed as one of the Eight Precious Things, the pearl symbolizes good fortune in the form of wealth and is considered auspicious.

Exquisite jewelry with pearls, as well as images of pearls, can be found throughout the Met’s collection.

Fragment of a floor mosaic with a personification of Ktisis, Byzantine, A.D. 500–550, marble and glass

Pearls were among the favorite jewels of the Byzantines. On display in the Met’s galleries is this splendid mosaic (above) of a richly bejeweled lady with large pearls in her ears, a necklace of delicate stones around her throat, and two brooches. Both her elaborate diadem and the dress neckline are meant to suggest pearls.

Pearls have often been combined with precious stones and other costly materials. This elegant earring is decorated with pearls and sapphires, then called hyakinthoi (hyacinths), which became popular in Byzantine jewelry in the sixth century. It is the inspiration for our beautiful reproduction earrings, current best sellers.

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Gold earring with pearls and sapphires, Byzantine, 6th–7th century

Queen Elizabeth I of England was known to have a passion for pearls. The sitter below, painted by an unknown British artist in the late sixteenth century, has not been identified, but she has been portrayed as the quintessential Elizabethan lady. Pearls are everywhere: wrapped around her neck, dangling from her ears, generously roped around each wrist, and trimming her lavish cloak.

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British painter, ca. 1600, oil on wood

Pearls remained popular into the twentieth century for both costume jewelry and couture accessories. “The Pearl Necklace,” an evocative platinum print by Frank Eugene, shows a pretty young woman gazing dreamily at a long strand of pearls.

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Frank Eugene (American 1865–1936), platinum print, 1900s

At about the same time as Eugene’s photo, the American arts and crafts designer Florence Koehler created a sumptuous brooch (below, right), adorned with clusters of pearls. Like jewelers before her, Koehler combined the pearls with gemstones and rich enamels.

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Pin, Florence Koehler (American, 1861–1944), gold, sapphire, pearls, emeralds, enamel, ca. 1905

Whether they’ve been cultured in a freshwater pool or made out of glass, pearls are always in fashion. Shop our unique pearl jewelry here.

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