During the Elizabethan Era, pearls were very symbolic, meaning different things to different people. Some used pearls for various medicinal purposes, but many chose to wear pearls because of their hidden meanings (Raber 163).
Through all these meanings, women sought to portray femininity with pearls (Pointon 118). Pearls were luxurious, captivating, and adored for their naturally beautifully qualities. They appeared out of the shell with shimmer and elegance with alluring, beautiful qualities. The multi-meaning jewel appealed to all women, as they could engage in symbolism in a beautiful manner. While their color may have worn away over time, they were used for thousands of years to represent different images of religion, fertility, eroticism, and death.
~~ Religion & Chastity ~~
Pearls made several appearances in the Bible, connecting them with religious symbolism. Pearls often decorated crosses, or fancy gold Bibles for churches or cathedrals (Chadour-Sampson 63). And because pearls were connected to the Bible, pearls were then associated with purity and goodness (Pointon 108). The symbolic meaning of chastity came right alongside. Many authors and poets chose to use the angelic, clean symbols of pearls for their simple and traditional religious meaning (Pointon 108).
~~ Baby’s Coming! ~~
During the Elizabethan era, the perception of pearls switched from purity and innocence to fertility (Chadour-Sampson 74). Pearls developed a symbolic meaning of pregnancy and fertility from their physical development – babies (like this cute toddler in pearls) grow and are nurtured within the mother’s womb just like how pearls are cultivated and developed within the shell (Raber 163). The baby within the mother is just like the pearl within the shell (Pointon 117). They were now given in dowries or featured in wedding portraits not for virginity, but as a good luck sign of fertility and child-bearing (Chadour-Sampson 74).
~~ Man, I Feel Like a Woman ~~
There was also a deeper meaning to pearls that no one explicitly talked about in the Elizabethan era – eroticism. Pearls in some instances could represent a deeper, sexual meaning, a euphemism for a vagina (Raber 162, Pointon 116). They were seen as a lover’s motif, a feminine symbol on chokers and jewels (Chadour-Sampson 75). Even though it was a hush hush symbol, Queen Elizabeth herself used pearls as sexual symbols in many portraits, as you’ll learn about in later sections.
~~ Death and Mourning ~~
While it wasn’t an entirely common symbol, pearls were also connected to death and mourning. The tear shape pearls were reflective of tears of sadness, and pearls were also considered the only appropriate jewelry during times of mourning (Chadour-Sampson 73). Mourning portraits often depicted women in black dresses, complimented by long strands of pearls (Chadour-Sampson 73). While mourning wasn’t a favorable subject, women still had a fashionable way to dress for the occasion.
With all these meanings in mind, why do you think Queen Elizabeth I loved pearls so much?
- Chadour-Sampson, Anna Beatriz, and Hubert Bari. 2013. Pearls.
- Pointon, Marcia R. Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery. New Haven [Conn.: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2009.
- Raber, Karen. Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. Compiled by Bella Mirabella. N.p.: University of Michigan Press, 2012.