Shall I Put that in a Box for You?

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Pearls were first appealing to Europeans because of their foreign, desirable qualities, and also because there seemed to be an endless amount of the beautiful jewel. Pearls were the finest gemstone to European royalty, because of their bountiful quantity – royalty could have as many pearls as they like, because they were not hard to come by. (Saunders 251). Jewelry in the Elizabethan era was used differently than it is today; instead of complimenting an outfit or feature, the goal was to create a “dazzling galaxy” of effect (Hazard 110). Thus, stones were often paired with many more stones, with lace, gold, and more. But, jewelry was often more effective or useful as a gift than as an accessory.

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Gift-giving was an extremely important component of respect and social relations for the aristocracy, especially during holidays or special events such as Christmas or New Year’s Day. Gifts were given as wishes to the receiver; rather than saying “Happy Birthday!” or “Congratulations!” like we do with gifts today, aristocracy of the Elizabethan Era gave gifts with the wish of the symbol the item carried. So, if someone gave a woman a pearl as a wedding gift, it was seen as a wish to that woman for successful childbirth.

Jewelry was the most common gift, both in large and small capacities. Smaller gifts often symbolized friendship, appreciation, but large gifts could be given to make the receiver dependent to the giver. (Harper 424).  Gifts were also utilized between the queen and her subjects to solidify relationships, but also to win lawsuits, government positions, or property (Stearn 114).

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Re-gifting was also a unique component to society in the Elizabethan era, but it didn’t carry the same perception that it does today. While today we think of re-gifting as a frowned-upon opportunity to get rid of something we dislike, in the Elizabethan era it was a symbol of respect. Re-gifting wasn’t always used to show displeasure, it could be done to reward someone else, a third party, for their hard work. Re-gifting was showing that third party how much you appreciated them by giving something that someone had picked out for you. (Stearn 116) On the other hand, re-gifting could become a manipulative act. The receiver would be indebted, owing something to the giver, and possibly even the original giver of the exchange. (Stearn 110)

Pearls were a big deal to receive, but the next step was just important – how to wear them.


Suggested readings:

  • Harper, Elizabeth. “Pearl in the Context of Fourteenth-Century Gift Economies.” The Chaucer Review 44, no. 4 (2010): 421-439. Accessed November 4, 2015.
  • Hazard, Mary E. Elizabethan Silent Language. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  • Saunders, Nicholas J. 1999. “Biographies of brilliance: pearls, transformations of matter and being, c. AD 1492.” World Archaeology 31, no. 2: 243-257. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson), EBSCOhost. Accessed November 4, 2015.
  • Stearn, Catherine Howey. “Critique or Compliment? Lady Mary Sidney’s 1573 New Year’s Gift to Queen Elizabeth I.” Abstract. Sidney Journal, 2012, 109-27. Accessed November 3, 2015.