Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Lustrous Luxury: Eighteenth-Century Coque de Perle Earrings

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Susan reporting,

One of the very best parts of blogging and social media in general is the opportunity to share images and inspiration with other like-minded folk. Last week, I saw the earrings upper right with a short explanation on the Instagram page of Taylor Autumn Shelby, a friend of this blog as well as the creator of replicas of historic jewelry.

I had never heard of 18thc coque de perle earrings before, but I realized I'd seen them in portraits like the one upper left: earrings with oval-shaped pearls that were far too large to be real, but were clearly prized enough to be featured in portraits. Pearls have been in fashion since ancient times, but before the invention of cultured pearls in the early 20thc, true pearls were rare and prohibitively expensive except for the very rich or very royal. I knew about Roman pearls, another kind of 18thc faux pearl that were glass beads lined with a pearly coating (see my earlier posts here and here), but coques de perle was new to me, and off I went to hunt for more information.

According to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, who owns the earrings lower right, each coque de perle (literally "pearl shell") is cut from the East Indian nautilus shell; the result is similar to a blister or mabe pearl. They are not rounded, but flat or hollowed on one side, and can be made quite large in size. The shape is usually oval (often described as olive) to follow the natural curve of the shell. The hollowed curve could be filled with wax or resin to give the finished coque de perle more of the weight of a true pearl, or left hollow to keep it light; I'm guessing that is the case of the pearl swinging from the large hoop earring in the Vigée Le Brun portrait, lower left. Some coques de perle were set in gold or silver like true pearls, while others were set in a base metal to make them more affordable.

I also found this description of coques de perle in the 1814 edition of A History of Inventions and Discoveries by Johann Beckmann, who in turn quotes 1762 French expert Jean Henri Prosper Pouget:

"Coque de perles are flat on one side, and are used for ornaments, one side of which only is seen. By Pliny they are called physemata. Artificial pearls of this kind have, for some time past, been employed in making ear-rings. Our toymen [jewelers], after the French, give these pearls the name perles coques; but the following account of Pouget in Traité des pierres precieuses et de la manière de les employer en parure [A Treatis on precious stones and how to use them for adornment] makes me dubious respecting them. 'La coque de perle,' says he, "is not formed in a pearl-shell like the pearl; it is procured from a kind of snail found only in the East-Indies. There are several species of them. The shell of this animal is sawn in two, and one coque only can be obtained from each. The coques are very small, and one is obliged to fill them with tears of mastic to give them a body, before they can be employed. This beautiful snail is found generally in the sea, and sometimes on the shore.'"

A beautiful snail, and beautiful earrings as well.

Upper left: Ritratto de Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo by Rosalba Carriera, 1741, private collection.
Upper right: Coque de Perle Girandole Earrings, 18thc, image via Bonhams Auctioneers.
Lower left, Detail, The Marquise de Pezay, and the Marquise de Rougé with Her Sons Alexis and Adrien by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1797, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Lower right: Girandole Style Earring (one of a pair; gold metal and coque de perle) English, about 1780, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket