In the painting below, a girl dressed in a delicate lace collar stares off to the left of the viewer. Though her identity is now lost, the girl remains enchanting to behold. Framing her face are two pearl earrings and, around her neck, a double string of pearls.
Simple and beautiful, the pearls add luster to the painting, drawing in the viewer’s eye. Such large pearls as those used for the earrings were rare at the time of the painting, and it is possible that the artist enlarged the ornaments to emphasize the sitter’s status.
In Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, pearls were valued for their beauty and rareness. Traders brought them to Europe from Asia, where local pearl divers harvested them from oysters deep underwater. Women and men across Europe adorned themselves with these gems.
In Elizabethan England, the right to wear peals was reserved for royalty alone.
Across the North Sea in the Netherlands, artists such as Antwerp’s Hans Collaert (c. 1525/30-1580) designed and printed engravings for the production of fine jewelry. Almost all of Collaert’s designs incorporate pearls.
Jewellers and goldsmiths working from these designs would have created pendants out of precious metals. The arabesque patterns could have been produced with elaborate metalwork or colourful enamelling. Finished products would have appeared similar to the one worn by the sitter in this portrait.
Sometimes pearls were used not just as ornamental additions to pendants, but as the occasion for pieces. It was unusual to find a perfectly round pearl occurring in nature, but the irregularly shaped “baroque” pearls were still highly valued and provided scope for creative designs. Sometimes, for instance, designers would use pearls as the body of an animal, as seen in this salamander pendant from the sixteenth century.
In these pendants, the beasts and their riders are depicted with intricate and often whimsical detailing. Sometimes the designs referred to specific stories. Such as one engraving that illustrates a passage from the Old Testament book of Tobit, which centres on a fish.
Such a piece would speak not only to the wearer’s taste in ornament, but also to his or her piety.
These and similar designs retained their fascination with jewelers well beyond the early modern period. Below is an example of a nineteenth century pendant in the shape of a mermaid with a pearl used for her chest. The pendant is inspired by designs similar to Collaert’s nautical engravings.
Ultimately, not all of the designs in Collaert’s ten-print series would have been produced as jewellery. However, Collaert’s prints were reissued at least three times after the artist’s death and admired for their own artistic merit as well as for their inspiring designs.