All About Antique Seed Pearl Jewellery And The Popularity Of Pearls In Britain Throughout The Ages

All About Antique Seed Pearl Jewellery And The Popularity Of Pearls In Britain Throughout The Ages

This post will answer these questions: 

When did seed pearl jewellery become popular?

How do seed pearls differ from other pearls?

Why are they called seed pearls?

Are seed pearls natural?

What colour range do seed pearls have?



© Sotheby's

The mourning jewellery shown above belonged to the second Countess Mountbatten of Burma, who was the great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. These antiques had been passed down through the family until the death of the Countess. Three of the pieces were commissioned to mark the death of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s daughter, Princess Alice. The onyx and seed pearl button (third from the left) was crafted in 1879. It features a portrait miniature of Alice and the letter A set with seed pearls and a gilt surround in Victorian Gothic font.


When did seed pearl jewellery become popular?

Seed pearls have been hugely popular in fine jewellery since the Victorian era. Their tiny size made them perfect to adorn the most elaborate and exquisite Victorian and Edwardian tiaras, necklaces, pendants, brooches and earrings. 

The most prestigious jewellers such as Faberge, Cartier, and Boucheron embellished their fabulous creations with seed pearls. The crowns of European royalty feature seed pearls. 

© Walters Art Museum
The Faberge Gatchina Palace Egg is made of quatre-couleur gold, opalescent enamels, diamonds and seed pearls. The miniature palace is made of quatre-couleur gold & divided into 12 panels by lines of seed pearls. The palace was located 26 miles south of St. Petersburg. Gatchina Palace was built for Count Grigory Orlov and it was later acquired by Tsar Paul I. This spectacular creation is one of two Imperial Easter eggs in the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Why are they called seed pearls?
You may wonder what is different about this type of pearl. Seed pearls are natural pearls that weigh less than a quarter of a grain.
How do seed pearls differ from other pearls?
The name seed pearl was acquired for no other reason than their remarkable size — less than 2 mm in diameter.
Are seed pearls natural?
They are not called seed pearls because of any unique culturing process or anything unusual about their formation within the oyster. Antique seed pearls are entirely natural. Seed pearls are formed in either a saltwater oyster or freshwater mussel. Their tiny size makes them remarkable and the skill required to make jewellery from them is considerable. The jewellers engaged to create fabulous pendants needed to have small hands, slender fingers and very good eyesight.
Often seed pearls were imported from India and China. The methods used to create seed pearl jewellery remained the same for well over a hundred years. The pearls were strung on silk or white horsehair, as these materials have great strength.                                                                                                                    
Twenty-first century jewellery is sometimes decorated with pearls which are also known as  "seed pearls". In these instances the pearls are created as a result of a pearl farmer stimulating the formation of a cultured pearl in a mollusc.
Mid way through the Victorian era clothing had become quite heavy and fuller and so jewellery designs reflected this. Precious metal supports were needed to account for much larger numbers of seed pearls included in designs. Throughout the late 18th century and early 19th century seed pearl jewellery was extremely popular in Great Britain, Europe and America.
After the death of Prince Albert Queen Victoria adopted mourning clothes and mourning jewellery. Queen Victoria was a trend setter and naturally ladies in Great Britain and the Commonwealth would emulate her attire and wear mourning jewellery. Pearls represent tears for the dearly departed and so mourning jewellery adorned with pearls and seed pearls became highly desirable.
A superb 15 carat yellow gold Edwardian double portrait locket with an ornate 18 inch vermeil necklace. This fine and impressive piece is ornamented with 38 lustrous seed pearls. The original protective glass is in place on both sides. The pendant is hallmarked to the reverse of the setting with the 15 carat gold fineness mark (15CT).
The growth of the middle-classes who desired refined and elegant jewellery was certainly one of the reasons for its great appeal, which continues to this day. During the reign of Queen Victoria pendants and brooches fashioned from seed pearls were immensely popular. Seed pearl jewellery was often associated with purity and so it was the natural choice of gift for young brides.                               
This tradition continued into the Edwardian era.                                                      
The splendid Edwardian 9ct yellow gold amethyst and seed pearl pendant shown above suspends from the most gorgeous fully hallmarked 9ct yellow gold belcher chain which measures 24 1/2 inches. The pendant is also a brooch.  Amethyst is the birthstone of February. 
Antique and vintage jewellery is often so well made that it requires very little care at all. However, seed pearls should be put on after perfumes and lotions have been applied, as pearls can lose their lustre if they have contact with chemicals. The antique necklace shown above is set with aquamarine. High quality aquamarine has the appearance of the most beautiful sea water. 
Aquamarine is the birthstone for March.
A fabulous Edwardian hallmarked 9 ct. gold pendant and necklace decorated with seed pearls and tourmaline.  The beautiful tourmaline and rose gold belcher chain and pendant are the perfect warm contrast to the exquisite seed pearls. Both the pendant and necklace are hallmarked. The pendant is also a brooch. The pendant measures 2 1/4 inches down x 1 1/4 inches across and the necklace is 19 1/4 inches.  Tourmaline is the birthstone for October.   

Heart shaped frames embellished with seed pearls have been sought-after as the most romantic gifts since the Victorian era.   

The vibrant fully hallmarked gold openwork frame pictured above is set with twinkling garnets and South Sea silver seed pearls. The original elegant flat cable chain 9ct yellow gold necklace is present. The weight of the pendant and chain combined is 2.6 grams. 
Colours of seed pearls:
When many people think of seed pearl jewellery they imagine white pearls but seed pearls can be found in colours other than white.
Seed pearls can also be silver and gold.
An oyster known as the gold-lip South Sea pearl oyster produces pearls that range from the traditionally creamy white to gold. Deep gold is currently considered to be the most sought-after.
White pearls may have a hint of pink or ivory. 


The Popularity Of Pearls In Britain Throughout The Ages

The British fascination for pearls can be traced back to before ancient Roman times. Pearls are the oldest gemstone known to man. Julius Caesar invaded Britain in the hope of finding pearls, gold, silver and tin. British pearls are predominantly freshwater pearls which originate from mussels. North Wales, Cumberland and Perth are the most notable areas where freshwater pearls can be found.

The Roman writer Tacitus described British pearls as golden brown and second only in value to those found in India.

Pearl fishermen and merchants traded this rare and valuable commodity all over the British isles. When Julius Caesar commissioned a breastplate to Venus it was adorned with British pearls. The Romans had well established settlements located near pearl-fishing areas named in the previous paragraph.

Caesar was considered to be very knowledgeable about pearls. During his time laws were passed to restrict who could own pearls. The most famous pearl in Roman times was a large black pearl which Caesar gave to his favourite mistress Servilia. At the time it was valued at six million sesterces which is the equivalent of over one billion US Dollars.

One report states that Caesar gave the pearl to Servilia when he returned to Rome after one of his invasions of Britain. The coasts of Britain and the Scottish lakes were well known sources for the harvesting of pearls.

Healing powers have been attributed to pearls since ancients time. These remedies range from those used to cure eye diseases, poisoning, heart palpitations, consumption and weakness.

Anselmus Boetius de Boodt (1550- 1634)) physician to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II described how he made the medicine named aqua perlata.

Dissolve pearls in strong vinegar or, better, in lemon juice. Add fresh juice and then decant. Add enough sugar to sweeten the milky and turbid solution. Take care to cover the glass while the pearls are dissolving, lest the essence should escape. Drink as needed.

Don't try this at home!

In the late Middle Ages (11th - 13th centuries) the returning crusaders brought back pearls along with their religious zeal. 

French influences as well as those of the court of Edward II (1284- 1327) saw the increasing use of seed pearls and pearls worn as jewellery and to embellish articles of clothing. 

The inventory of Alice Perrers, the mistress of Edward III (1312-1377) stated that 22,000 pearls were in her possession! Perrers became King Edward's mistress when she was eighteen years old. After Queen Philippa, the King's consort, died in 1369 the affair became more widely known. Dressed in lavish garments and bedecked in pearls and other jewels Perrers was paraded around London as The Lady of the Sun on the command of King Edward III. This ostentatious behaviour and the fact that she was only the mistress of the King caused much consternation.

During the reign of Edward III The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths was founded (1327) to protect the trade of gold and silver in the country. Jewellers were inventing new tools to perfect their skills and present jewels in more elaborate settings. It was customary for seed pearls and pearls to be used in designs which would draw attention to the vivid colours of other gemstones and outline their shapes.

King Henry VIII adored pearls. He used his inherited wealth and the wealth he pillaged from the monasteries and cathedrals when he turned the country into a Protestant realm to purchase large quantities of pearls and seed pearls. Just about every item of his attire would be at some time embellished with pearls. He gifted his wives splendid pearl necklaces. Male and female courtiers followed his fashion trends. 



One of the most famous pearl necklaces was owned by Anne Boleyn. A single strand of pearls with a solid gold B pendant in the middle and three tear-drop pearls suspended from under the letter B. 

By the early fourteenth century pearls were used to beautify the hair styles of royalty, wealthy noblewomen and courtiers.

We can see from the Armada Portrait that this convention continued into the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. 



Oil on canvas attributed to William Scrots (active 1537 - 1553)

© Royal Collection Trust

This demure depiction of Lady Elizabeth Tudor before her accession is such a fine and enchanting portrait which conveys her gentle nature, dignity and desire for knowledge. It is in sharp contrast to the portraits after her coronation which display her might and majesty. However, in many of the portraits pearls are worn. Pearls symbolise Elizabeth's chastity and link her to the Greek goddess of the Moon who was a virgin. 



The Armada Portrait shows Queen Elizabeth I wearing pearls and clothes embellished with pearls which symbolise her chastity. Her right hand is placed on a globe. Her finger is pointing at Virginia which was named after her. Her hand atop the globe and resting on America demonstrates England's desire to rule over the Americas. 

Elizabeth faces toward the calm seas on her right. The seascape shown on her left depicts the stormy sea which added to the troubles facing the Spanish Armada. Queen Elizabeth I is seen as a calming influence over Protestant England. 

The imperial crown depicts the Tudors pursuit of empire. Seed pearls and large pearls adorn the crown.

It was during the reign of Elizabeth I that pearls were prized more highly than any other jewel. The Queen was said to have owned over three thousand pearl encrusted dresses. 

Large quantities of saltwater pearls were discovered in the Americas during the seventeenth century. 

From 1811 - 1820 the Regency period in England saw the rise in creativity. Goldsmiths and jewellers crafted jewellery which used seed pearls and pearls to represent fruit or garlands of flowers. 

During the Victorian era (1838 - 1901) seed pearl jewellery became increasingly popular. Many of these tiny pearls were imported into England from India or China.  The elegant Regency inspired designs continued to be commissioned. 

As pearls symbolise purity and sweetness they were the most popular gift for the bride to be. However, it was considered unlucky for the bride to wear them on her wedding day. 

After the death of Prince Albert (1861) Queen Victoria went into deep mourning. She would wear mourning clothes and mourning jewellery for the rest of her life. Victoria was for many years inconsolable. The Prince's rooms in their residences were maintained exactly as he wished they were kept when he was alive. Her servants were instructed to bring hot water into his dressing room every day as they had formerly done for his morning shave. Throughout the British Isles memorials to Prince Albert were erected.

Seed pearls and pearls representing tears for the dearly departed would feature strongly in the design of mourning lockets, as would black onyx. Locks of hair would be placed in lockets. Some of these lockets would be adorned with hair art - elaborately woven hair of the deceased along with their portraits and so the departed were ever present.

Nobles, courtiers and the well heeled followed Queen Victoria's trends. During this era and the Edwardian era seed pearl jewellery was much in demand.



© The Royal Collection Trust

The Imperial State Crown is the crown the monarch exchanges for St Edward's Crown, at the end of the coronation ceremony. It is set with 269 pearls. Before the Civil War the ancient coronation crown was always kept at Westminster Abbey and the monarch needed another crown to wear when leaving the Abbey. This crown is also worn on formal occasions. For example - the State Opening of Parliament. 

This crown was made for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.


The Duchess of Cambridge is pictured at Prince Philip's funeral on 17 April 2021. The jewellery she chose to wear had a special significance, as she had been lent the necklace by HM Queen Elizabeth II to wear on the Queen and Prince Philip's 70th wedding anniversary in 2017. This four strand pearl and diamond choker was a gift from Japan to HM Queen Elizabeth II in the 1970s. The pearls are worn as a sign of respect to Prince Philip and to mark his passing.



The Royal Collection Trust