Today pearls are among the most common of precious "jewels." But before the development of cultured pearls and farming in the early 20th c., all pearls were natural pearls. These rare treasures could be discovered only by accident and at considerable peril. Natural pearls had great mystique and luminous beauty as well as value, which made them favorites of queens – and kings.
One of the most famous pearls of the 17th c. belonged to King Charles I of England (1600-1649). While the origins of this single pearl earring are unknown, Charles is first shown wearing it in a miniature, left, as the fifteen-year-old Prince of Wales. The pearl soon became what fashion-folk today call a "statement piece", and one that he was seldom without.
Charles's large teardrop-shaped pearl – an especially rare and desired shape –was made into a single dangling earring with a tiny gold crown as the cap, topped with an orb and cross that was most fitting for a future king. Since Queen Elizabeth's reign, fashionable English gentlemen had worn single earrings as a sign of courtly swagger and bravado, qualities that the young prince was woefully lacking: Charles was slight and short (only 5'3"), he limped from childhood rickets, he stammered, and he suffered from acute shyness. Perhaps the sizable jewel gave him the confidence that nature had not.
Whatever the reason, Charles wore the pearl for the rest of his life, and it appears in nearly every portrait of him, including one of him dressed casually for hunting, right. He developed into a style-conscious king who patronized the arts, and the single earring suited him in that capacity, too, as the romantic, cavalier king.
Unfortunately, while Charles was a very good patron to artists, architects, and composers, he proved to be a wretched king to his people, stubbornly unable to reconcile his subjects' desires and expectations with his own. After barely surviving two civil wars, he was captured by the Parliamentary forces led by General Oliver Cromwell and found guilty of high treason. He was executed on 30 January 1649, beheaded with a single stroke of the ax on a scaffold before Whitehall Palace. He was still wearing the pearl earring as he placed his neck on the executioner's block.
Later historians seem to have been determined to give the execution a lurid, gory hysteria that no contemporary witness reported, and describe a (fictitious) howling mob surging forward to tear the precious jewel from the bloody, severed royal head.
Well, no. Even with regicide, this was still Puritan England, not Jacobin France.
Instead Charles's earring was respectfully removed when his head was sewn back to his body in preparation for burial. The earring was then sent as a final memento to his oldest daughter, Mary, Princess Royal (1631-1660), as Charles had requested. After Mary's death, the earring eventually found its way to one of the late king's most loyal supporters, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1592-1672), who had also been entrusted with the education of Charles's son, the future King Charles II. Today the earring, bottom left, remains in the collection of the duke's home, Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire, now owned by the Dukes of Portland.
Top left: Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles I) by Issac Oliver; the Berger Collection,
Denver Art Museum.
Top right: detail, Charles I, King of England, at the Hunt by Anthony van Dyck; the Louvre
Lower left: detail, Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles, by Anthony van Dyck; Windsor Castle, Royal Collection
Bottom right: Earring of Charles I, Harley Gallery, Welbeck, Worksop, Nottinghamshire
Update: Many thanks to my fellow nerdy art history friend Connie G. for suggesting yet another portrait of Charles I. The detail at left shows the earring more clearly than any other portrait of the king as an adult.