The Pearly Queen

Recently, I’ve had a lot of comments about (and orders for) my Tudor coin necklace; more than I was expecting, actually. Originally the necklace was more of a fun, nostalgic, ‘hey-look-it’s-that-coin-I-saved-from-Kentwell’ design I did on a whim than an homage to Tudor style itself, but people have really responded to it. Turns out people love a bit of Tudors (who knew?!), so I started thinking about how to incorporate Tudor influences into new designs.

The first thing most people think of when you mention Tudor jewellery is vast numbers of pearls, but why the sudden pearl explosion? The first reason is scarcity (or perceived scarcity). After all, what shows wealth and status better than something someone may very well have died trying to pull out of a sea creature? Interestingly, by the 1580s pearls were actually flooding across the Atlantic from the ‘land of pearls’, as North America became known. Fortunately for contemporary privateers and merchants, instead of devaluing the gems, this supply surprisingly did the opposite. Not only were pearls still fantastically expensive, they were now attainable in vast quantities, the better to adorn your way to the top.

The other reason for pearls’ PR boost in the British Isles towards the end of the 16th century was the reign of Elizabeth I, aka The Virgin Queen. For centuries, pearls have been associated with purity and perfection; in Ancient Greek lore, pearls were formed from the droplets of water which rolled off Aphrodite as she emerged from the sea.

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As Elizabeth built her image as the virginal monarch married to her country, symbolism was paramount, and pearls, with their centuries of pure connotations and their glowing luxury, were the perfect fit. She put them on everything, and ensured they featured in every portrait:

However, even this the Pearly Queen couldn’t always afford the vast quantity of precious stones needed for the desired, so the smaller pearls on her clothes were sometimes fake. You’d think this would be an obvious switch, but fake pearls (made from glass or nacre) were actually so common and of such relatively high quality in the 16th century that they were banned in Venice because of the danger they posed to the pearl traders.

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The Tudor obsession with pearls both spawned some truly gorgeous pieces and fed into new trends.

Bracelets came back into vogue in the late 16th century, after having been largely neglected since the early medieval period, and many were made of (you guessed it) strings of pearls:

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Late-medieval and early-Tudor headdresses also gave way to the ferronière, strings of pearls or jewels which festooned elaborate hairstyles:

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And finally, a post on Tudor pearls wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Mary I’s famous La Peregrina, the gratuitously large gem which eventually ended up around Elizabeth Taylor’s neck:

 

Sources:

  • Stoned, Aja Raden
  • Jewellery From Antiquity To The Present, Clair Phillips
  • 7000 Years of Jewellery, Hugh Tait
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