A seed pearl is a tiny pearl, weighing less than a quarter of a grain. Often imperfect, these tiny treasures required great precision from the jeweler. Some of the holes were so tiny that horsehair had to be used to string them, silk being too thick. (I wonder if the labor required in working with seed pearls is one of the reasons they are not used as much today. Seed pearl jewelry was relatively inexpensive in the past because of the low cost of labor.) Arranged delicately around colorful enamel, painted miniatures, gems, corals, larger pearls or other natural materials and set in gold or silver, the pretty, delicate and sensual luster of seed pearl jewelry is a delight and one of my absolute favorite materials used in antique jewelry.
Pearls and seed pearls of course have been sought after throughout human history. In the Georgian era (1714 to 1830), seed pearls were used in cluster rings, combined with precious or semi-precious stones. Seed pearl jewelry was particularly popular in the early Victorian era (1840 to 1860) and continued to be used until the Edwardian era. Seed pearl jewelry fell out of vogue somewhat when the bolder styles of the Art Deco movement came in around 1920, but has never truly gone out of fashion to this day. Victorian seed pearl jewelry was generally sold in sets of a necklace, two bracelets, earrings and a corsage. Interestingly, much of the work in seed pearl jewelry manufacture was done in Germany, although it was sold in England and elsewhere. Because people in the Victorian era tended to have a lot of children, these sets would normally get divided up so a complete set is much harder to find and much more valuable. The finest and more delicate seed pearls were from China.
Seed pearls have the same characteristics as any pearl and may be cultured or natural. Nearly all pearls sold today are cultured. However, pearls from before 1916 when the pearl culturing process was first patented will be natural. The only way to know for certain if a pearl is natural or cultured is with an X-Ray. Many professionals devote their whole careers to grading and valuing pearls. However, there are some home tests for telling if a pearl is at least an authentic pearl which I will discuss at a later date. Pearls are considered to be an ‘organic gemstone’ along with jet, coral and amber.
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