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.
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.