Follow the Stories | Tampa, Florida (2006)
Seed Pearl Jewelry
It's a rare treat to find seed pearl jewelry decorated with diamonds, like this blue rose cut stone.
Necklaces like this one were thought to resemble lace. A perfect look for young Victorian brides.
In the 1860s metal supports were added to larger delicate pieces like this brooch.
Thin horsehairs or silk was threaded through tiny holes drilled into a mother of pearl backing.
At the Tampa, Florida, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, appraiser and seed-pearl expert Jeanenne Bell was impressed by the fragile beauty of a necklace that its owner believed was once Marie Antoinette's. Though this issue of provenance could not be resolved, we did catch up later with Jeanenne to find out more about the history of seed pearl jewelry.
"A seed pearl," Jeanenne explained, "is a natural pearl that weighs less than a quarter of a grain." Seed pearls acquired the name for no other reason than their remarkable size — less than 2 millimeters in diameter. They are not called seed pearls because of any unique culturing process, or anything unusual about their formation within the oyster.
Still, their size makes them remarkable enough. "Can you imagine the skill and patience to drill these tiny pearls without breaking them? Making seed pearl jewelry was a cottage industry done by young men and women with small hands and good eyes."
Jewelry appraiser Jeanenne Bell explains "seed pearls"
Jewelers typically used seed pearls imported from India and China. The pearls were strung on silk or white horsehair and then attached to a mother-of-pearl backing drilled for that purpose. As to dating antique specimens, Jeanenne noted, "Because seed pearl jewelry was constructed in the same manner for over a hundred years, the main clues for circa-dating come from the style and scale of the piece." (Though this is not always 100-percent accurate, as there are exceptions to the rule.)
Jeanenne continued, "As fashions in clothing became fuller and heavier during the mid-19th century, the jewelry tended to be fuller, with fewer open spaces. Consequently, the seed pearl pieces became so large that some people thought that they might need more support." So metal supports were sometimes added to the back of larger pieces of jewelry.
Seed pearl jewelry was especially popular from the last quarter of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, when the burgeoning middle-classes of Europe and the United States grew fascinated with pearls and had the money to purchase them. By the mid-1800s, seed pearls were in high demand. The Victorians favored the look of these delicate, almost lace-like pieces against the skin and often associated seed pearl jewelry with purity. They were especially fashionable as bridal gifts. An 1870 newspaper article noted how such pearls were "exquisitely beautiful and constitute an appropriate and elegant present to a young bride."
For the appropriate handling and care of these pieces today, Jeanenne had the following advice:
"Because seed pearls are an organic material, the same care should be taken with them as with other pearl jewelry. It's a good idea to very gently rub them with a soft cloth after wearing. Always put them on after you apply any perfumes or lotions. Because pearls are organic they can lose their luster when exposed to these products. Refrain from touching the pearls while wearing, as the acids from your hands will be detrimental to their longevity."
See the Tampa, Florida (2006) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Jewelry category:
Mark Twain's "Aquarium" (Baltimore, 2008)
Jennifer Rodriguez is a former editorial assistant for ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online.