Thursday, May 26, 2011

"Roman Pearls": Faux Jewels for the 18th c. Lady

Thursday, May 26, 2011
Susan reporting:

Pearls are one jewel that never seems to go out of fashion, with the earliest mentions found 4,000 years ago in China. Pearls were worn as jewelry in ancient Rome, and Cleopatra was said to be particularly partial to them. But until the development of cultured pearls in the early 20th c., however, all true pearls were made by nature and an irritated bivalve, with the result that pearls were exceptionally rare. Considered the most costly of gemstones, they were reserved for kings, queens, and others with the deepest of pockets.

Still, European ladies yearned for the look of pearls, even if they couldn't afford the real thing, and ingenious craftsmen were creating look-alikes from the middle ages onward. By the 18th c. – an era when pearls were the perfect accessory to flowing, pastel Rococo fashions – the very best faux pearls were known as "Roman pearls." These were hollow beads of blown glass, whose interior surfaces were coated with an iridescent derivative of fish scales. Once lined, the beads were then filled with wax to give them the proper weight. Despite the Roman name, the process is credited to a Frenchman, M. Jaquin, and Roman pearls were made by his family for over two hundred years. The luxury-craft is described in Denis Diederot's famous Encyclopedie, which includes illustrations of women making the beads.

Just as modern socialites wear c.z. replicas of their diamonds and keep the originals in their safe deposit boxes, 18th c. ladies often wore copies of their pearl necklaces and earrings. Sometimes, too, they would mix faux pearls with their real diamonds and other jewels. The only caveat was to keep away from the fireplace, for the center wax core of a Roman pearl was known to melt and leak on the neck of an unfortunate wearer.

Roman pearls were also the choice when fashion demanded an extravagance that no mere oyster could ever provide. Given the size and quantity of the pearls worn by these two ladies, it's likely they're wearing Roman pearls, or other similar pearly glass beads.

Mrs. Andrew Lindington, right, clearly followed the trendy motto of "more is more" when it came to accessories, and wears not only enormous pearl beads around her throat, but also edges her wired headdress with more pearls. It's possible that her earrings and the jewel on her headdress are real, but it's the glass pearls that really steal the show. Young Eliza Shrewsbury of Charleston, South Carolina, left, is also stylishly dressed with huge pearls around her throat, plus more hanging from her ears and trimming the bandeau in her hair. While the open book in her lap proves that she's as true a lady of leisure as the new American republic can boast, it's almost certain that her pearls, too, are glass – and no less lovely for being pretend.

Top: Detail of Portrait of Mrs. William Mills (Rebecca Pritchard) and her daughter Eliza Shrewsbury, by James Earl, 1794-96, Winterthur
Below: Detail of Portrait of Mrs. Andrew Lindington, by Joseph Wright of Derby, c. 1761-63, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

15 comments:

Beth Dunn said...

Ouch! Nothing like a little hot, molten wax dribbling down your pure white chest of an evening among the quality. That's sure to leave a mark...

Isobel Carr said...

How cool! I knew about paste jewelry (I even own some), but I’d never heard of these.

Priscilla said...

New to me, too. Was there a third photo?
I so enjoy your blog. Thanks for the pleasures of learning new facts.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Beth, my guess is that on a hot summer afternoon some of the "filling" might trickle out - but I doubt it was ever liquid enough to be molten. Unless it was one super-hot lady. *g*

Isobel, I hadn't heard of these, either, but after seeing the huge, obviously fake pearls in portraits, I got curious.

Priscilla, I didn't put in any more pictures just so the post wouldn't be too long. But there are three more that are most likely glass pearls:

An unknown late 18th c. Creole woman by Liotard - love how the necklace is so high on her throat:
http://bit.ly/lbLwNZ

Another American woman, Elizabeth Shewell, by Matthew Pratt c 1765:
http://bit.ly/iDGiqy

And another, Mrs. John Dart, by Jeremiah Theus, c 1772 - she's wearing multiple necklaces for a swag-effect:
http://bit.ly/k1KTo5

cpc1996 said...

I believe that Abigail Adams had a fish-scale pearl necklace that is still in a museum somewhere. I had assumed that the fish scales were glued onto the outside of beads - nice to know how they were really made. Also, that the "fake" pearls didn't imply that she was too poor to afford the real thing, since most folks were not of the income level to afford pearls....

Nancy R. said...

If some is good, more is better, and too much is *just* right!

The Dreamstress said...

How fascinating - I never really thought of how they made faux pearls. I always just assumed that portrait painters added a few extra pearls to their sitters attire to make them look wealthier!

Any idea if there are many examples of these type of faux pearls in museums?

Mme.Tresbeau said...

How interesting! I love pearls and I've always wondered when the "Costume" variety first were made.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I was curious about Abigail Adams' "pearls", too - so look for a post about them here on Wednesday. :)

AvaTrimble said...

I am now officially longing for some enormous faux pearl jewelry. I may have to investigate the L.A. fashion district for some big ol' pearl beads while I'm in town, and craft some delightfully gaudy jewelry. I blame your for this, Two Nerdy History Girls! ;)

Wedding Pearl Earrings said...

Roman pearl has a true iridescence which is produced by burning colors into the hollow enamel bead. A reflection of the spot from the inside surface of the bead will appear beside the spot itself if the pearl is of the Roman type. Thanks a lot.

Tahitian Pearls said...

Pearls are a classic piece of jewelry and have been a symbol throughout the ages of beauty and elegance. They make a wonderful gift as they are so versatile. A unique feature of pearls is their luster, or glowing quality. Thanks a lot for sharing these valuable information about Roman pearls.

edgertor said...

I was digging through my box of old jewelry pieces, and found i had a string of these! they have a grey undertone, but bc one was cracked, i was able to take it apart and see what it was made of--sure enough, it was wax with a nacre/scale powder covering, surrounded by blown glass.

wow! i wouldn't have known about this if not for your blog. now i have to figure out what to do with them.

thanks

-r

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that information. I have a pair of fish-scale tear-drop earrings handed down from my mother from her mother (or mother-in-law) but I had always understood that they simply consist of the fish-scale being reduced to a liquid state and the bead dipped into it. Over time the media has crackled and greyed quite badly. Now with your information I am pulling them out to have a closer look!

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am an antique jewellery dealer and have recently been researching about essence d'orient. My understanding was these particular pearls originated in Venice during the Renaissance - and had a heavy penalty for anyone found making them since it was outlawed.Jaquin just reintroduced it at a later date and made it popular again perhaps?

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