I don’t generally read romances, but I stumbled on the Two Nerdy Girls blog back when I was researching French costume for a 17th century doll and I love it! They really dig into historical fashions and accessories-the fun fripperies that show us how little people change, but that history books tend to skip.
We’re at the end of June and almost out of pearl birthstones, but I had to share a snippet of the history of fake pearls!
Until modern cultured pearls (again, see Aja Raden’s Stoned for a great look at the history of Mikimoto pearls) all pearls were ‘wild’ and both extremely costly and difficult to match.
Romans tried to make fake pearls by coating glass beads with silver, and then with another layer of glass. (Which makes me wonder if they already knew about the layered nature of natural pearls.) They also tried using mica coated pottery.
Fake pearls were a lucrative challenge. By the eighteenth century pearls were seen as THE fashion accessory for Rococo styles.
The best fake pearls were called ‘Roman pearls’ or ‘French pearls’. These were blown glass beads lined with an extract of fish scale pigment to imitate the nacre of real pearls. They were then filled with wax to give them a natural weight. I’ve seen this process attributed both to Venetian glass merchants and a French rosary maker. (For the extraction process head over here. Big bead, little bead . shows extant examples with the tube for adding the fish extract still visible.)
A portrait by Benjamin Blyth of Abigail Adams c. 1766 shows her wearing wears what looks like a double strand of pearls. A young lady marrying a country lawyer wouldn’t likely be able to afford strands of real pearls. But fake pearls were considered an acceptable and elegant substitute. A strand of pale pink glass beads donated to the Smithsonian by one of Abigail Adams’ descendants are probably the ‘pearls’ in the pastel.
Sadly they’re currently a web only display, so we can see pictures online but not in person. I wish the image were larger since I’m curious how the ribbons were attached to the end of the pearl strands. It’s certainly a more flexible closure than a clasp, but also one that works best with upswept hair styles. In the portrait you don’t see any hint of the bow that would be visible behind her neck. One theory behind the ribbon closed pearl necklaces is that they originated in France where the bow was intended to make the necklace decorative from the back as well as the front and to highlight the embellishments on the back of high end eighteenth century gowns.