Professional Jeweler Archive: Seeds of Beauty

September 2000

From the Vault

Seeds of Beauty

Tiny pearls make a big statement in delicate jewelry

Modest and demure yet astonishingly complex, seed-pearl jewelry was a perfect reflection of the ideal woman in the early 19th century. Society was in the throes of the Romantic Movement, wherein nature, art and the history of mankind were exalted to the highest degree, and past cultures were idealized as the paradigm for contemporary life. On this lofty plane, women were regarded as fragile creatures needing protection from harsh reality.

Seed-pearl jewels made their first appearance as hair ornaments in the 1790s. Usually designed as floral sprays, they often were fabricated on trembler springs to provide realistic movement. Many French jewelers, the acknowledged masters of this meticulous art, left their homeland during the revolution and relocated to England or the U.S. The fashion for seed-pearl jewelry reached full flower around 1840. Interest waned in Europe after 1840, but continued in the U.S. through the end of the 19th century.

Piece by Piece

Making seed-pearl jewelry was labor-intensive, to say the least. Mother-of-pearl backings were cut in delicate floral or formal shapes and pierced in openwork designs. These pierced designs were drilled with minute holes to allow pearls ranging from 1mm to 5mm to be sewn on with silk or white horsehair, preferably pulled from a live horse.

The individual elements, now intricately embellished with an elaborate arrangement of seed pearls, were linked with seed-pearl strands to produce ethereal jewels of breathtaking beauty and delicacy. Occasionally, gemstones such as garnet, amethyst, topaz or carnelian were added, set in gold collets and stitched to the mother-of-pearl substrate.

Clasps for necklaces and bracelets were set with seed pearls, half-pearls or occasionally with woven hair under a crystal cover in the sentimental manner of the age.

Matched Sets

Seed-pearl jewelry usually came in matching sets of jewelry called parures. The number of pieces in a parure varied, depending on the prevailing fashion. Any combination of seed-pearl jewels – such as hair ornaments, necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches – could be included. While a parure of gold and faceted gems could include rings and buckles, seed-pearl parures generally did not because they were too fragile to withstand that kind of wear.

Pearls in the 19th century were associated with love and purity, making seed-pearl jewelry a perfect bridal gift. Although it was considered unlucky to wear pearls on the wedding day itself, seed-pearl jewelry could be worn to other festivities around the time of the wedding. The innocent nature of seed-pearl jewelry also made it a suitable ornament for a young woman just “coming out” in society. In fact many young ladies acquired seed-pearl jewelry as their first formal jewelry.

The fragile components that make seed-pearl jewelry so special also programmed its obsolescence. Sadly, not many pieces have lasted to this day, and what few do survive are usually damaged or so frail they should not be worn. Despite this, the pieces that remain are a wonderful treasure for the true collector. They are ephemeral works of art – sweet reminders of a gentler time.

– by Elise B. Misiorowski

From the estate of Irving Scott and Dorothy Dolge Knight Smith, this elaborate demiparure of seed-pearl jewelry is in a formal motif of interlocking scrolls and volutes, festooned with seed-pearl strands. Courtesy of the S.H. Silver Co., Menlo Park, CA; (650) 325-9500.

Copyright © 2001 by Bond Communications