Wedding Gemstones – The Pearl

This post will be the first in a new ongoing series about the various types of gemstones that are used for weddings; particularly for items such as engagement rings, bridal jewelry and other fashion accessories.  The first gemstone in this series will be the pearl and in this post I will discuss the history and the symbolism associated with the pearl.  I will also briefly discuss the difference between saltwater and freshwater pearls and to end the post I will also discuss several historical and famous pearl jewelry items. 

The history of the pearl

The pearl is believed to be the oldest gemstone which dates back to the time of Ancient Greece.  In Ancient Rome pearls were extremely rare and considered a symbol of great wealth, in fact Julius Caesar created a law which degreed that only members of the ruling class could wear pearls.  For a period of time the Persian Gulf was considered the center of the pearl trade due to the abundance of the natural oyster beds found there which proved to be a very valuable commodity until the discovery of oil in the region.

In Ancient China pearls were believed to have magical powers that would protect the wearer from the fire of dragons while during the Medieval Ages knights would wear pearls to protect them when going into battles.  During the 15th to 16th centuries the demand for pearls in Western Europe became so great that it became known as the Pearl Age, members of royalty and nobility often wore elaborate pearl jewelry and embellished their fashions with pearls.  In other cultures the beauty of the white pearl came to symbolize purity and chastity while during the Victorian Era small seed pearls were often used in mourning jewelry to symbolize the wearer’s tears of sadness.  Then, by the 19th century the supply of the natural pearls found in oyster beds were depleted and in Asia the discovery of creating cultured pearls was developed to continue with the demand and supply of pearls.          

The different types of pearls

Unlike other gemstones which are mined from the earth, the pearl is found in a living organism.  A pearl is formed within an oyster when a small irritant, such as a piece of sand, becomes attached in the mantle (the soft inner layer) causing the oyster to secrete nacre (a crystalline substance) which builds up around the irritant ultimately forming a pearl composed of calcium carbonate, this type of pearl is classified as a natural pearl. 

Due to the high demand for pearls throughout the centuries, natural pearls had become quite rare and eventually commercial industries would be established to produce pearls by artificially implanting irritants in the oysters, as a matter of fact almost all the pearls currently produced and sold today are classified as cultured pearls. 

Cultured pearls are divided into two categories depending on the environment in which they are grown.  The first is saltwater pearls which are produced in the oysters found in the ocean, these are further classified by the region the pearls are grown and the type of oysters that is used.  Akoya pearls come from the akoya oyster (Pinctada fucata martensii) and is white in color, generally round in shape and considered the most lustrous of the cultured pearls.  Tahitian pearls come from the black-lipped oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, found in the islands of French Polynesia and are naturally black to charcoal grey in color.  South Sea pearls come from two different varieties of an oyster known as Pinctada Maxima, one produces pearls in a silver color from Australia but the most popular is the gold pearls from the Philippines and Indonesia that can range in color from a deep gold to cream.    

The second category of pearls is the freshwater pearl that is produced from mussels found in freshwater lakes and rivers.  Freshwater pearls can be round in shape but are more frequently irregular in shape.  Freshwater pearls are often bleached to produce a white pearl but sometimes the pearls will be dyed to produce colors ranging from green to blue to brown.    

Historical and famous pearl jewelry (in no particular chronological order)

La Peregrina Pearl pendant

The La Peregrina Pearl has a long history.  It was first discovered in the Gulf of Mexico and presented to the King Phillip II of Spain who in turn offered it as a wedding present when Mary Queen of Scots married.  After her death, the pearl was returned to Spain, many of the Queens of Spain can be seen wearing the La Peregrina Pearl in their official portraits.  Later, the pearl became the procession of the Bonaparte family of France but by the end of the 19th century there is no documentation to show what happened to the La Peregrina Pearl.

A century later, the La Peregrina Pearl was purchased from the Parke-Bernet Gallery in New York City by Richard Burton in 1969 for $37,000.  The pearl was on a gold chain but this was too simple for the taste of Elizabeth.  She commissioned Cartier to create a more elaborate necklace inspired by a portrait she had seen of Mary Queen of Scots wearing the La Peregrina Pearl.  Elizabeth collaborated with Al Durante of Cartier and they designed a necklace featuring two rows of pearls, twenty-three larger pearls and thirty-four larger pearls, intersected with eight separate clusters of diamonds centered by a cushion-cut ruby style to resemble flames all set in platinum and gold.  In the center of the necklace is the La Peregrina Pearl hangs from a diamond and silver bail which is attached to a large cluster of diamonds centered by a pear-shaped ruby which is attached to a large pearl and then another pear-shaped ruby and then finally attached to the necklace.  The La Pergrina Pearl Pendant can also be detached and worn as a brooch.  After Elizabeth’s death, the La Peregrina Pearl Necklace sold for over $11 million at the Christie’s auction.            

Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Necklace

In 1887, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the British throne, a committee was formed to raise funds for a commemorative statue of Prince Albert to honor the beloved husband of the Queen who died in 1861.  (Eventually the completed statue was dedicated in 1890 at Windsor)  The remainder of the fund was used for an impressive necklace with 26 large pearls and over 300 diamonds which Queen Victoria wore in the official Golden Jubilee photograph.  The necklace has a large central pearl and diamond quatrefoil with a large pearl in the middle, a pearl and diamond crown set at the top with a large pearl drop hanging at the bottom.  The remaining necklace comprises of graduated diamond and pearl trefoil links, six of the largest trefoils were designed to be worn separately as brooches.  After Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the necklace became the personal property of the crown and was worn infrequently by subsequent queen consorts.  The necklace is said to be a favorite of the current Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Alexandra’s Dagmar Necklace

A remarkable necklace in the Queen’s personal jewelry collection is known as the Dagmar Necklace which was given by King Frederik VII of Denmark to Princess (later Queen) Alexandra upon her marriage to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) in 1863.  The necklace was designed in a Byzantine style comprising of alternating diamond and pearls swags set in gold connected with diamond and pearl medallions also set in gold and features a replica of the famous Dagmar Cross, hence the name of the necklace.  The history is that Queen Dagmar was buried with a similar cross laid on her breast and since then the tradition is that when Danish princesses are married they wear a replica of the cross.  The Byzantine style cross on the necklace is detachable with an image of Christ at the center with four additional saintly images on the front while the back depicts a scene from the Crucifixion, included within the cross is a piece of silk from the grave of King Canute and a sliver of wood from the original Dagmar Cross.  Upon the death of Queen Alexandra in 1925, the necklace was given to the Crown eventually passing to Queen Elizabeth II; she appropriately wore the necklace on her state visit to Denmark in 1957.

The Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara

The Grand Duchess Vladimir, Maria Pavlovna, was the wife of the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexanrovich and the aunt of the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  The tiara was created specifically for her in 1874 by the Russia royal jewelers and was a semi-circular band made of platinum with a design consisting of fifteen interlaced circles set with diamonds and a band of diamonds across the top with pearls drops and small diamonds mounted inside each of the circles.

With the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, many Russian royalty members including the Grand Duchess fled the country but most of her fabulous jewels were hidden in a secret vault in the Palace.  Sadly, Tsar Nicholas and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.   The Grand Duchess lived exiled from Russia first in Venice, Italy and later she moved to the south of France.  Her jewels, including the tiara were eventually smuggled of out Russia by a trusted British diplomat and returned to the Grand Duchess.   When she died in 1920 her jewels and the tiara were given to her daughter, the Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirona, who married Prince Nicholas of Greece.  As the family’s vast fortune was reduced, she sold several pieces of jewelry, including the tiara, to Queen Mary in 1921.

By this time the tiara was in very poor condition and in need of repairs.  The tiara was refurbished by Garrard, the royal jewelers, and Queen Mary decided to make the original teardrop pearls interchangeable with her famous Cambridge emeralds.  When Queen Mary died in 1953, the Vladimir Tiara was given to her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

Queen Elizabeth wears this versatile tiara frequently and it is also one of her favorites, sometimes she will wear it with the original pearl drops, sometimes with the Cambridge emeralds and she has even worn the tiara with no pendants at all.

Kensington Bow Brooch 

The Kensington Bow Brooch was inherited by Queen Elizabeth from the large jewelry collection of her maternal grandmother, Queen Mary.  The brooch was a gift to mark the 1893 wedding of Princess May of Teck (the future Queen Mary) to the Duke of York (the future King George V) She wore the brooch at both the coronations of King Edward VII (her father-in-law) and King George V (her husband) The brooch was made by Collingwood & Co. with two rows of diamonds set in silver and gold to resemble a bow tied around a single large diamond in the center with a detachable pave set baroque pearl pendant.  Queen Elizabeth inherited the brooch in 1953 and often wears it to secure a sash at her shoulder for formal events and has infrequently worn it without the pearl drop for more casual day appearances.  Most recently the Queen wore the Kensington Bow Brooch at the funeral of her mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who died in 2002.

Cambridge Lovers Knot Tiara

In 1914 Queen Mary commissioned Garrard to recreate the tiara of Princess Augusta of Hesse-Cassel, her maternal grandmother, who was the Duchess of Cambridge.  According to her will, when Queen Mary died she left the tiara to her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.  The tiara was later given to Diana, Princess of Wales, as a wedding present and she who wore often.  After her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996 the tiara was returned to the Queen.

The tiara is French Neo-Classical in a design which features 19 openwork frames of diamonds in the form of arches with 19 graduated large pearl drops.  At the top of each arch are lover’s knot bows with a large diamond at the center.

Princess Elizabeth’s bridal jewelry

On her wedding day, Princess Elizabeth wore two pearl necklaces. The shorter one was known as the Queen Anne necklace, possibly belonging to the last Stuart Queen of England.  The longer one was known as the Queen Caroline necklace which had belonged to the wife of King George II.  Both necklaces became the possession of Queen Victoria and upon her death they were left them to the Crown.  Prior to the wedding day King George VI, the bride’s father, gave them to Princess Elizabeth as a wedding present.

The pearl and diamond earrings that Princess Elizabeth wore on her wedding day were a 20th birthday present from her grandmother, Queen Mary, who had originally inherited them from her mother, Princess Mary Adelaide of (Cambridge) Teck.

Jackie Bouvier’s wedding bracelet

On the night before the wedding John Kennedy gave Jackie a beautiful diamond and pearl bracelet which she wore on her wedding day, the bracelet is shown in the photo below.  Jackie also wore a pearl necklace which was a gift from her mother and step-father. 

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