Pearls in the Renaissance

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Europe's Favorite Gem

Ongoing exploration of the Americas and recently established trade routes to the East made pearls available as never before in Renaissance Europe beginning in the 1500s. The new centers of the pearl trade, Lisbon and Seville, overflowed with pearls from India, the Persian Gulf and the Caribbean. The upper classes adorned themselves lavishly in these gems, which became the symbol of wealth, status and taste in an age of splendor. Irregularly shaped, or baroque, pearls were especially admired. By the late 1600s, however, people began to favor less extravagant displays of pearls as a result of a changing religious and political climate, combined with a decline in pearls arriving from the New World.

Loch Buy brooch Natural pearls, silver gilt, rock crystalScotland, c. 1500
The British Museum, London

A man wore this brooch, adorned with Scottish freshwater pearls, at the shoulder or chest to secure his brat, a rectangular cloth slung about the body. A compartment under the rock crystal dome may have held a religious object. The brooch once belonged at one time to the MacLeans of Loch Buy.