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How antique jewelry is a portal into history

This is a great ring, mostly because it’s gorgeous and feels great on the hand, but it also has a remarkable history, as antique jewelry often does. It’s worth exploring because this charming little piece is linked to place, time and thought that still rings true today. I’ll start by describing the intangibles, the qualities I wish you could experience in person, beyond the pretty pictures.

When I first tried this piece on, I noticed was how soft the gold was, how worn and comfortable. It has three rows of tiny seed pearls, creating a rectangle that curves over the finger. It struck me as a ring that a queen would wear, but not for show, not for fancy occasions like a formal coronation or anything like that. It has a quiet, gorgeous luster. It glows, and yet it has a sort of comfortable practicality, too. It’s clean and smooth and flush against the hand, no sharp edges or extra flourishes in the metal work. It’s the kind of jewelry that she would prefer to wear every day, when she was in the palace just doing normal stuff. Writing letters, spending time with her children, walking around the garden, probably playing with her silky brown palace spaniels.

The History of this charming pearly piece

When I had this ring appraised, I learned that it’s most likely English from the 1830s — a time at the tail end of what’s known as the Georgian period, which spanned roughly 100 years and four king Georges, some beloved, some not. The last King George, George IV, died grotesquely fat, and upon his death The Times wrote “never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king.”

The throne passed to George’s 64-year-old brother, William IV, who never expected the office and showed little interest in it. 1 The newly industrialized world was a complicated place and major changes were brewing in English history, which crystallized at this time. The Great Reform Act passed in 1832, shifting the distribution of power in England from the elite to the everyman, abolishing slavery in the West Indies, and providing social welfare for the destitute. Additionally the Great Reform Act included child labor laws where before were none (the terrible working conditions compelled Charles Dickens was inspired by the terrible working conditions in England to write Oliver Twist in 1838).

In retrospect, it’s funny that my first impression of the pearl ring was that a queen might wear it. In fact, the reigning Queen of England at the time of this ring’s creation was an unhappy woman for reasons I won’t get into here. Let the record stand, though, that this seed pearl ring, is sumptuous in its materiality and certainly fit for a queen.

Georgian Period

The Georgian period is ornate if nothing else. Fashion was full of frills, buckles, ribbons and sparkling jewels — evidence of the kinds of opulence that everyday people were not afforded during this time, and why they fought to gain civil and labor rights. The architecture reflects this opulence as well; mason work and details on buildings turn stone and wood into flowing ribbons, flowers and dramatic flourishes.

The seed pearl ring, in a way, feels modern to me for this period. The lines are clean and geometric, yet it has a natural, graceful shape. It’s not overly designed. Jewelry pieces created during this period tend to have more flourishes, more ornamentation, sometimes making the finished piece bulky and more difficult to wear. When a piece of jewelry is smooth and flush with the skin, there’s an ease to it; when I’m putting on a wool sweater, for example, it’s nice when there’s no edges to catch on the yarn. And yet, despite the ring’s simplicity, it still manages to feel generous in its materiality. The pearls are abundant and the gold is worked into tiny crenelated edges around each pearl, with careful, intentional gold smithing.

Another thing one might notice right away is that each tiny pearl is unique with its own shape and slight variation in color — generally rosie, warm hues. Why is this? Because pearls from this era are pre-cultivated. Each one was born from the wild sea; a diver had to hunt each pearl from the bottom of the ocean. Each one grew in the wild and has its own sort of personality, shape and hue.

Pearl Myth and History

There are all kinds of fun historical references of humans feeling a protective, lucky force from these tiny celestial orbs. Cleopatra and the ancient Taoists believed that drinking a pearl dissolved in liquid could offer longevity (Cleopatra did so with a toast of fortitude to her lover, Marc Antony.) One of my favorite odes to pearls is an ancient Arabic version of Solomon’s writings:

“Divers are the virtues of gems: some give favor in the sight of lords; Some protect against fire; others make people beloved; Others give wisdom; some render men invisible; others repel lightning; some baffle poisons; some protect and augment treasures; and others cause that husbands should love their wives”

From the Book of the Pearl by George Frederick Kunz
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