I’m not sure if I have mentioned this before, but my name, Leimomi, means (at its most basic, Hawaiian being a language with many layers of meaning to every phrase) a necklace (lei) of pearls. Because of this, I feel a particular affinity for pearls.
I also just plain like their subtle elegance, their luminous sheen, and their purity: a pearl in the fanciest setting looks much like a pearl straight out of an oyster shell. Any other gemstone, on the other hand, must be altered and refined almost beyond recognition before being set.
Pearls were also one of the most popular gemstones historically. Up until the development of cultured pearls in 1916, natural pearls were often worth far more than diamonds. Ironically, only a few decades before cultured pearls became common and the price of pearls plummeted, a wealthy New Yorker traded their Fifth Avenue mansion to the jeweler Cartier for a double strand pearl necklace. At the time the necklace was valued at US$1 million. The mansion is now Cartier’s showroom.
I have a number of pearl necklaces, including cultured pearls, irregular baroque pearls, and vintage synthetic pearls. They have come in very useful with many period frocks.
I did not, however, have any pearl bracelets, and I wanted some. I’ve been studying the pearl bracelets show in 18th century paintings for some time (not portrait bracelets with pearls, though I’ll be writing about them soon). Some of them are clearly just ropes of pearls twisted around the wrist (something that I’ve done in a pinch), but others seem to be purpose-made bracelets, with no overlap.
Madame de Pompadour wears them in a couple of her portraits:
These may be the same bracelets: the pearls are the same size, and four strands are show in both paintings.
Izabella Pontiatowska, sister to Stanislaw II, King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, had a three strand set:
Marie Antoinette was also a fan. She’s wearing a three strand bracelet (probably a matching pair) in this portrait by Vigee Le-Brun, and possibly the same set in this portrait, and again in Le-Bruns formal version of the portrait with the rose (though the pearls look slightly smaller), and Le Clercq’s sketch with her son. She also had a two-strand set, shown here, and a five strand set shown in Wertmüller’s portrait with her children. It’s possible that they are all the same bracelet, with additional strands added and taken away.
Maria Antoinette’s mother Maria Theresa is also shown with pearl bracelets, and her portrait answered my big question about these bracelets: namely, how do you put them on?
Maria’s bracelet appears to have a clasp on the underside to fasten the four strands. It’s possible that what shows in the portrait is a portrait bracelet, but this seems unlikely, as every other example shows them worn on the outside of the wrist.
So, based on the idea of a 2-5 strand bracelet, fastened with a jewelled clasp, I went looking for suitable materials. I found two matching vintage 1940s diamante clasps with a reasonable 18th century aesthetic, and a three-strand 1940s synthetic pearl necklace with pearls of the right size, colour and lustre that was missing a couple of beads to cannibalise.
A few hours of work and this is what I came up with:
The Challenge: Pretty, Pretty Princesses
Year: Fashionable throughout the second half of the 18th century
Notions: Linen thread, vintage synthetic pearls, vintage diamante pearl clasp
How historically accurate is it? My part of the work is probably pretty accurate, but obviously synthetic pearls are not. There probably were 18th century clasps that used paste jewels rather than real diamonds.
Hours to complete: 4 + shopping and sourcing materials. I had to re-strand one bracelet as I mis-counted and strung it with one too few pearl on each strand.
First worn: Around the house today, while continually holding my hands in front of myself to admire how pretty they looked.
Total cost: $4 per clasp, + $8 for the necklace, = NZ$16 for the pair.