ca. 1585-1590 Elizabeth I in Parliament robes. Unknown artist
The Renaissance Period could very well be called “The Pearl Age”. The end of the 15th Century was marked by Columbus discovering America, where the conquistadors found lavish temples, from which a steady stream of plundered treasure began to flow back to the countries of the Old World. Pearls were one of the most commonly encountered decorations among the Aztec temples and idols, and it wasn’t long before two thousand kilos of them had found their way to Europe.
Once a rare luxury available only to the elite, pearls were suddenly providing decoration forthe broader levels of society as well. Jewellery, hairstyles, men and women’s clothing, even as buttons – pearls were everywhere, and in unimaginable quantities. So much so that at the baptism of her son Louis XIII, the Queen of France, Marie de’Medici, was dressed up in an outfit decked out with thirty thousand pearls. And that was just the start of it…
Elizabeth I, the queen of England, was completely obsessed with these jewels of the sea. Was it because The Virgin Queen preferred it as a symbol of innocence and purity? Or was it because she loved extravagant outfits, was a keen follower of fashion and knew how to predict new trends? Or was it because she would not suffer any other woman in her court to outdo her when it came to expensive outfits? Today, of course, no-one can say, but the fact remains that she was literally showered in pearls.
Queen Elizabeth I letter to Drake establishing the Order of the Pearl
1588 Queen Elizabeth I, The Armada Portrait Attributed to George Gower
Every day long necklaces made from a thousand of the finest pearls could be seen draped around her neck. And it wasn’t just her neck – on her wrists she would wear six or seven pearl bracelets at a time.
If we look at portraits of Elizabeth I, she is dressed in all of them, as you’d expect, in splendid clothes, generously decorated with jewellery; and it’s no surprise that among the diamonds, rubies and other precious stones, the pearls take centre stage!
The queen was, quite simply, besotted with these underwater gemstones. It’s no wonder that a necklace of six hundred pearls belonging to Mary Stewart (Mary Queen of Scots) made her lose sleep, and it is possible that the desperate desire to have that piece of jewellery for herself could have spurred her on in her decision have the Scottish queen executed. After that the pearl necklace, needless to say, found itself in Elizabeth’s possession.
On top of this, the queen of England even solicited the well-known corsairs John Hawkins and Francis Drake to raid the Spanish fleet in search of pearls and bring the spoils back to her. Is there anything women won’t do for the sake of their beloved jewellery! KP
Portrait of Elizabeth I