Pearls have long been a symbol of sophistication, favored by Hollywood royalty and actual royalty alike; Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and of course our own Queen (seldom seen without a double or triple pearl necklace), have all made pearls a part of their signature style. But pearls have been worn as a form of jewellery for millennia, which we know thanks to a fragment of pearl jewellery found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess that dates back to 420 BC, which is now on display at the Louvre in Paris.
In his book Natural History, the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, describes a banquet thrown by Cleopatra for Marc Antony, to prove that she could host the most expensive dinner in history. She instructed her servants to bring her potent vinegar and then dropped one large pearl from a pair of earrings into the vinegar, dissolving it, then drank it to demonstrate her indifference to riches. This was not just any pearl, Pliny called it ‘the largest in the whole of history’, and estimated it to be worth 10 million sesterces, which is equal to approximately $30 million today.
Monarchs throughout history have adorned themselves with pearls, but it was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, that pearls were prized more than any other jewel. She customarily wore seven or more ropes of large pearls, the longest of which extended to her knees and had thousands sewn onto robes, doublets and even gloves. Elizabeth realized that as an unmarried ruler she would appear weak or vulnerable in the eyes of her contemporary male monarchs, so adorned herself in pearls to silently demonstrate her wealth and power.
Originally published in Tatler.com