t’s been said time and time again that you can never go wrong with pearls. According to fashion, art history, and media, pearls are charming and important. Humans have been enthralled with them for centuries. But why? Where did the pearl affixation begin, and how did pearls become the revered art historic gem they are today?
The pearl obsession can be dated back to ancient times. In 2300 B.C.E China, it was common to present pearls as gifts to royalty and in Ancient Egypt, pearls were considered gifts from the Gods. In one famous story, the iconic Queen Cleopatra famously dissolved a pearl in a glass of vinegar and swallowed it to demonstrate the immense depths of her pearl infatuation. Now that is a trend setter.
Transfixed by their glossy, illuminating presence, society considered the pearl to be a symbol of wealth and power throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Eventually, the pearl became a highly coveted accessory in aristocratic portraiture. One painting by Hans Holbein the Younger depicts Jane Seymour adorned in pearls from head to toe. The pearls are the main focus of the piece. In this sense, the pearls elucidate the subject’s wealth and important role in society as the wife of Henry the VIII.
Similarly, Johannes Vermeer’s portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) remains one of the most widely known Baroque paintings today, in part because of the impressive depiction of a larger-than-life pearl dangling from the figure’s ear. Vermeer was said to be the master of light, and the dazzling glimmering pearl in this portrait quite literally illuminates this talent.
Pearls were also known to have divine, whimsical qualities too. People often associated pearls with the goddesses of love and beauty, Venus and Aphrodite. One 15th-century painting by Sandro Botticelli titled The Birth of Venus depicts the goddess stepping out of a life-sized clam shell as if she were born in the place of a pearl. The message is clear: The Goddess and the pearl are interchangeable. The connection between beauty, femininity, and pearls continued well into the 18th century. One artist, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), painted Young Woman with a Parrot (1758) which depicts a woman with her wardrobe undone, her chest exposed, but pearls intact, and holding a parrot. The young woman is gazed upon, presumably by the male viewer, her pearls and innocent look embody the same delicate qualities of Venus in her shell.
As the pearl became a symbol of Godliness and gained prominence in religious imagery, the connection between the pearl and female purity only seemed to grow. Some biblical depictions of the Virgin Mary highlight a subtle strand of pearls, reminding the viewer of Mary’s purity. These representations elevate the significance of pearls that remain prevalent, even today. I mean, doesn’t the parable even say, “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.” Again, the message is clear: Pearls are divine.
Sometimes, modern-day artists play off of these historic biblical depictions and use the symbolism of pearls to do so. One artist, Harmonia Rosales, included pearls in a powerful 2019 work titled Our Lady of Regla. As stated in the New York Times, “Rosales creates rich visual stories honoring her Afro-Cuban religious heritage and the larger African diaspora. She portrays deities and royalty figures in various scenarios working to raise Black communal consciousness and empower Black women."
“It’s an attempt,” she said, “to expand the limited cultural imagination around the agency of Black people and the nature of Black female identity.” Rosales relies on cultural symbolism to create impactful works. She uses the distinguished cultural significance of pearls as a way to subtly recreate a traditional narrative and explore femininity, class, religion, and race through the representation of the Black Madonna in this scene.
Over the years, pearls made their way into impressionism, art nouveau, the fashion industry, and even present-day make-up trends. Despite any modern-day efforts to break pearls from their high-class, divine standards, there’s something about the pearl’s illuminating beauty that, even worn with a tee shirt, has an affluent feeling to it—most likely due to their continued appearances in high-society portraiture over the many centuries. You can dress a pearl down all you want, but centuries of “divine pearl worship” make it almost impossible to look at a string of pearls as anything less than a crown atop a Queen's head. And maybe, that’s not so bad—perhaps the pearl is meant to reign.
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