Pearls have been a traditional bridal accessory for generations. They have been made into necklaces, bracelets, brooches, earrings, and rings, and have been sewn onto shoes, wedding gowns, purses, and veils. My favorite vintage pearl jewelry comes from France, where the process for making artificial pearls was born. The TruFaux Jewels website includes several pairs of earrings that are lovely examples of the French artisans’ work. Click through to see them and more vintage jewelry for brides and other members of the wedding party.
Artificial pearls have been used in jewelry since the Renaissance. They were first made in France before the 15th century by dipping a hollow glass bead into acid to produce an iridescent surface. Over the centuries, the process was improved by coating glass beads with essence d’Orient (pearl essence), a solution of crystals made from fish scales and lacquer. Up to 10 coats may be applied. Until 1940, pearl essence was made only in France.
One of the most notable 20th century French manufacturers of artificial pearls was Louis Rousselet, who started business in 1922. His factory became a major source of handmade beads worldwide until the late 1960s. Louis Rousselet-designed jewelry is coveted by collectors but cannot always be identified with certainty because most of his pieces were signed only with a paper label. But those familiar with his work recognize many of his pieces by their design and components. This four-strand pearl and gemstone bead necklace with matching earrings (shown on the left) is a rarity, in that the necklace clasp bears the maker’s mark. Another pair of similar earrings is also available for purchase. Click through to see details about this set; click here to see more jewels by and in the style of Louis Rousselet.
In the United States in the first half of the 20th century, pearl costume jewelry was produced by manufacturers such as Jos. H. Meyer & Bros. (under the trade name Richelieu), Indra Pearl Co., Inc. (under the trade name Omar Pearls), Albert Lorsch & Company (under the trade name Regent Pearls), and L. Heller & Son, Inc. (under the trade names Deltah Pearls and La Tasca Pearls). These companies advertised in wholesaler catalogs in elaborate multi-page, full-color spreads. The full-color ad shown above is a page from Donnelley’s National Jewelry Catalog, 1927-1928. On the right is an ad for BlueBird Pearls by Henshel Pearl Corporation, published in the June 8, 1929 issue of Vogue.
Genuine or natural pearls are formed in mollusks when a foreign particle, such as a grain of sand, is embedded and coated with multiple layers of nacre. The finest pearls are produced by the pearl oyster in sea water and are known as Oriental pearls. Until the late 19th century, Oriental pearls were regarded as more precious than diamonds, because collecting a perfectly matched string of pearls took years. Fresh-water pearls, which come from freshwater or river mussels and clams, were discovered in the 1950s. These pearls are considered inferior to and are less expensive than Oriental pearls.
In 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan first developed the cultured pearl, which is formed in the same way as natural pearls, except that a human inserts a grain of sand, a bead, or other irritant into the mollusk for coating with nacre. Spherical cultured pearls weren’t grown in Japan by Mikimoto until 1905. He patented the process in Japan in 1908 and in the U.S. in 1916. The availability of cultured pearls made pearl jewelry more affordable to the middle class in the 1920s and 1930s.