When Queen Elizabeth sat for the artist who painted what became the renown Armada portrait series, she offered us a veritable treasure trove of information – a timeless commemoration of the Tudor Queen’s success in defeating the Spanish armada.

Her hand on the globe, the imperial crown in the background, stiffly seated in a fantastically ornate costume, flanked by naval icons and scenes of battle drama against a lavish tapestry, all serve to underscore her true imperial majesty. While “a picture says 1000 words,” if she had provided a caption it may very well have been:

“Tread lightly all you who presume your might toward this small island. Make no mistake; as you see, we are the most powerful on earth.”

But this is not a blog on the didactic analysis of historical allegory, but a closer look at a distinctive feature of the portrait. One that appears in profusion in portraits that both precede and follow the Tudor era. Specifically, pearls–all those pearls–one of the defining representations of wealth. And how appropriate in a pictorial essay of sea power the Queen wears in massive display, pearls, the gem of the sea. In fact, over 800 of them have been recorded in this portrait alone! Embellished upon her sleeves, coiffure, ears, neck, and bodice –the canvas is filled with strands, drops, belts and ornaments of pearls.

Nothing says success like excess

Traditionally, the purpose of portraits was to capture the living image for posterity. Clearly you would take every opportunity to present yourself properly; with all the trappings of your wealth, status and position, and in this case, achievement; there was no mistaking Who You Were.  It was a case of more is more and it is no coincidence that through the ages, from painted portraits to photographs, display of your pearls denotes a subtle cachet that many felt would exceed that of a ruby, diamond or emerald.

With their dreamy reflective surface, the silky feel and accessibility of wearing them close to the skin, they are truly unequalled in the world of gems with a mystical allure all their own.  Which is apparently what Elizabeth felt as she is clearly well supplied.

But consider the sheer number and size of pearls so often depicted in royal portraits, and then consider statistically the multiple oysters required to find a single pearl.  Odds are, tens to hundreds per pearl and eating oysters are different than pearl producing oysters.

In Elizabeth’s time there were no cultured pearls; those would not appear until the early 1900’s, so there was only one way to acquire these gems: take a deep breath and head down into sea water.

The first gem? 

Thousands of years ago pearls were already known to those humans who, living in settlements along river and sea coastline harvesting oysters for food, found these ‘first gems.’ Over time they acquired intrinsic value in nearly every culture.

And in our own back yard, pearls from the freshwater mussel of Scotland’s rivers were eagerly sought by Romans during that occupation. Later, these Scottish pearls, now an endangered species, figured prominently in the crown of Scotland fashioned in 1307 for James I coronation.

It is the lavish –and royal use- of harvests from pearl beds of the Persian Gulf however, that give us evidence of successful commercial operation. The pearling in these waters was a thriving endeavor with reports of “pearls the size of eggs set in royal diadems” (although whether these were quails, robins or chicken eggs is not offered).

By 956 AD Arabian traveler, historian and geographer Ali bin al-Hussain al Masudi describes pearl fishing in the Persian Gulf as “beginning in April and continues for six months until September.”  Later one Portuguese explorer Lodovico Barthema who observed divers off the island of Hormuz in 1547 offers his fascinating report:

At three days’ journey from this island they fished the largest pearls which are found in the world; and whoever wishes to know about it, behold! There are certain fishermen who go there in small boats and cast into the water two large stones attached to ropes, one at the bow, the other at the stern of each boat to stay it in place. Then one of the fishermen hangs a sack from his neck, attaches a large stone to his feet, and descends to the bottom–about fifteen paces under water, where he remains as long as he can, searching for oysters which bear pearls, and puts as many as he finds into his sack. When he can remain no longer, he casts off the stone attached to his feet, and ascends by one of the ropes fastened to the boat. There are so many connected with the business that you will often see 300 of these little boats which come from many countries.

At the same time, another pearl operation far to Britain’s west was in full swing. Dubbing America as a “land of pearls,” Christopher Columbus had been exporting pearls from day one– primarily to Spain–using slaves as divers “who descended from 3-5 fathoms.”   While diving and surfacing at these depths was hazardous, the prospect of freedom bestowed from bringing up a spectacular find, such as Mary Tudor’s La Peregrina pearl kept a steady supply of candidates willing to undertake the perilous risks.

Timeless treasures persist

Through political shifting, marriage and death these exported pearls made their own history and among the many ropes of pearls Elizabeth I wears is one double strand known as the Hanoverian Pearls, possibly sourced from the New World waters.

These famous pearls passed from Catherine de Medici who had received them as a marriage gift from Pope Clement VII, then through France to Mary Queen of Scots. After Mary’s death Elizabeth I authorized their purchase when Mary’s royal treasures were being sold, despite vehement protest from Queen Catherine.

Described by De la Forest, the French Ambassador in London, assigned to assess value on behalf of Catherine, he writes “…there are six strings on which they are strung like rosary beads and besides these there are 25 separate pearls even more beautiful and bigger than those which are strung, the greater part like nutmegs.

They had not been three days before they were valued by divers merchants, the Queen Elizabeth wishing to take them for the sum at which they were valued. They were first shown to there of four goldsmiths and jewellers of this town who valued them at £3.000, i.e. 10.000 ecus, offering to deliver them for that sum if desired. Several Italian merchants, too, saw them afterwards and priced them at 12.000 ecus, which is about the price, according to what I was told, for which the Queen will take them. There is a Genoese who saw them after all the others whose valued them at 16.000 ecus, but I think that 12.000 will be the price.”

The same double strand is now worn by Queen Elizabeth II today, having been handed down through the Hanoverian line through Queen Victoria’s will who left them to the Crown in perpetuity.

But unlike nearly every other precious gem which requires cutting and setting, a pearl from an oyster is ‘ready to go.’

And, like the 4C’s that denote diamond value- cut, color, clarity and carats- pearls have their defining attributes as well.

Smooth to blemished surfaces, perfectly round, pear shaped, or oddly misshapen called “baroque”; highly reflective to dull, and color along with size, are the valuing parameters.  The reflective quality of their ‘nacre’ denotes lustre ranging from a flat and dull to mirror -like surface.  Lustre is in fact the defining quality of value.

It would only stand to reason that the finest lustre pearls would be reserved for royal owners. But, they weren’t for everyone.

Sumptuary laws forbade the wearing of pearls by the common folk throughout Europe and Britain but you could potentially own fakes.  These were ingeniously created from small, glass, iridescent Venetian beads coated inside with a concoction of fish slime and varnish (yes, really) and then filled with wax. Apparently they were pretty convincing as Elizabeth I is reported to have worn those alongside the real thing.

Falling but never failing to rise again

Over time the pearl market fluctuated but they their cachet as a personal loudspeaker for wealth, refinement and status. But in the mid 20th century pearls took a big hit.

Over-harvesting from the advent of diving equipment; pollution from oil spills, shoreline development and herbicide and sewage runoff all served to ruin many sea water and freshwater cultured pearl beds.  And yet despite setbacks, the industry has rallied.

Leveraging the 1890’s Japanese Mikimoto culturing technique where introducing a shell bead or piece of oyster flesh called ‘mantle’ into a living oyster to prompt pearl nacre formation, Chinese ingenuity has taken culturing pearls to new levels.  Using unique mollusc species in freshwater beds, they have artificially induced freshwater pearl production with results of often huge pearls in fabulous colors of deep purples, pinks, lavenders and peacock iridescence.

Luckily, today you don’t need to be a noblewoman or queen to own a fabulous strand of pearls.  And after Coco Chanel took the concept of pearl wearing from its reputation associated with stodgy and stiffly-posed portraiture of toffs in tiaras, the wearing of pearls–real and fake– became an everyday accessory.

But for those eager for adventure, the pearl find of a lifetime is still possible, but not at the local oyster bar.

A valuable necklace, ring, or brooch is frequently found in a charity shop as the unwittingly overlooked treasure from donations. The defining test for authenticity however, requires nerve in a public setting as you must rub them against the surface of your teeth.  If they feel gritty, it’s the real thing — fakes feel waxy– but it’s the bona fide foolproof test.  They will likely be cultured pearls, but should they prove to be natural upon valuation, their true worth is staggering.

In 2014, a strand of 53 natural saltwater pearls sold for nearly £2.3 million and Mary Tudor’s La Peregrina pearl, acquired by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor, was sold on auction for over £24 million. Sale prices to literally take your breath away!

Which quite possibly we can only hope, was the Tudor Queen’s reaction to her newly acquired hoard, back in the sixteenth century.

Guest Blogger:  Barbara Lee Hesselgrave, Freelance Journalist