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  • Writer's pictureHeather Moll

Pearl Jewelry in the Regency Era

“…yes, I am sure Mrs. Tilney is dead, because Mrs. Hughes told me there was a very beautiful set of pearls that Mr. Drummond gave his daughter on her wedding–day and that Miss Tilney has got now, for they were put by for her when her mother died.”

Northanger Abbey Chapter 9

Georgian seed pearl necklace with black dot paste and rose gold clasp

I’m a fan of Georgian era jewelry and work a piece into most of my novels. When I decided to write a book about Eleanor Tilney, the decision about what jewelry to put into the plot was made for me. In Northanger Abbey, we know from Mrs. Allen’s gossip that Miss Tilney will get her mother’s pearls, which were a present from her father when she married General Tilney.

For us, pearls have a refined and mature look and are sometimes given as milestone gifts when a woman “grows up”. I got a pearl necklace when I turned 18. Pearls aren't often worn these days—although I’m one to say, “What are you saving them for?” If you want to wear the pearls to the grocery store, wear the pearls.

Pearls are formed within oysters from layer by layer of nacre building up around an irritant. Many pearls in the Georgian era were from oysters found in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the waters around Sri Lanka. Seed pearls from India were also an essential part of Georgian jewelry and were threaded into intricate designs to support slides and clasps as well as larger gemstones. These were particularly fragile but examples still survive–many with repairs.

Gold, ruby and pearl cluster ring c1835

Pearls were widely used in Georgian jewelry and were often cut in a cabochon or teardrop shape. Rubies and pearls were a fashionable combination at the time. Pearls were also often used in mourning pieces since the pearls represented tears. Pearls were used from everything to hair combs to bracelets and faux pearls were also worn.

Since Mrs. Tilney received a “set of pearls” we can guess she received what we’d now call a parure. These suites of matching jewelry often contained convertible pieces. For example, a brooch could double as a pendant or a necklace could separate into two bracelets.

The seed pearl set below is from a Bonham's auction. It's from the early 19th century and has a necklace, a pair of earrings, a small brooch, and a large spray brooch with flower heads mounted en tremblant.

In Loving Miss Tilney, her mother’s pearls have been set aside for her for when she marries, and Eleanor is resigned to not being able to marry the man she loves. It’s by looking at this set of pearls that she considers defying General Tilney and marrying the poorer man her father will never approve of.

Do you like pearl pieces? Do you own any?

Georgian Jewellery. Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings. P47-49. 2019.

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