The liquid drops of tears that you have shedShall come again, transformed to orient pearl.Shakespeare: Richard III, Act IV, Scene IV
The notion that pearls are tears rendered into gems is found in many ancient stories and is a theme beloved by poets throughout the ages. In the twentieth century, T S Eliot alluded to a similar thought in The Waste Land,
“Here, said she,Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)”
|Ladies and their Pearls|
The beauty and chaste purity of pearls have led to them being viewed as the perfect gift for brides to wear, although a parallel tradition held that each pearl worn by a bride on her wedding day presaged a tear she would later shed during her marriage, (as it would be an extremely unworldly bride to expect an entirely tear-less marriage, many feel it’s well worth the risk).
As pure as a pearl,And as perfect: a noble and innocent girl.Owen Meredith (Lord Lytton), Lucile, Pt II, Canto VI
The ladies-in-waiting of Empress Eugénie tried in vain to dissuade from wearing long strings of pearls when she married Napoleon III, in 1853, and many said, after the event, that her subsequent tragic life was due to wearing so many pearls to her wedding.
|The Empress Eugenie|
Similarly, Queen Margaret Tudor, wife of King James VI of Scotland, prior to the Battle of Flodden in 1513, dreamt for three consecutive nights that all her jewellery had turned into pearls, which was interpreted as an ill-omen of forthcoming widowhood and disaster. Pierre de Rosnel, writing in the seventeenth century, allies the pearl to Venus, born of heaven and the sea,
“… so in like manner the pearl — the loveliest of all gems — is formed in the sea and is the offspring of the dew of heaven.”Rosnel, Le Mercure Indien, ou le Trésor des Indes, 1672
|Botticelli - The Birth of Venus|
This is another reason why brides, pearls and the Goddess of Love are so closely associated. An added level of purity surrounds the pearl as it is taken from nature in a perfect state, without the need for the hand of man to improve it in any manner, and this purity is reflected in the name of Margaret, which derives from the Persian Murwari, (pearl, child of light), through the Greek μαργάρίτης, and is found in variations throughout Europe, from the French Marguerite and Margot, German Gretchen and Grethel, Italian Margherita and Rita, to the English Marjorie, Peggy and Madge.
|The Dowager Queen Margherita of Italy|
There are several St Margarets, all of whom symbolise innocence and purity, including St Margaret of Antioch, ‘the mild maid of God’, who is the embodiment of feminine innocence and whose attribute is a string of pearls, St Margaret Ætheling, canonized in 1215 and adopted as the patron saint of Scotland in 1673, or Margaret, ‘the Pearl of Bohemia’, held in especial reverence by the Danes.
|St Margaret of Scotland|
In literature, Margarets abound as heroines of innocence, from Goethe’s Gretchen, in Faust, Tennyson’s ‘Sweet pale Margaret’, and Scott’s ‘Ladye Margaret, the Flower of Teviot’. William Drummond of Hawthornden plays with the name and the association with pearls in his An Epitaph of One Named Margaret,
“In shells and gold pearls are not kept alone,A Margaret here lies beneath a stone.”
|Charles VI of France|
As may be expected for something so associated with purity, pearls were once a valuable, if mildly ineffectual, medicine. Crushed pearls, dissolved in distilled water, were given to Charles VI of France, (called Charles the Mad), in an attempt to cure his bouts of insanity. Lorenzo de Medici, ‘The Magnificent’, lay dying of fever at Careggi and was also given pulverized pearls as a cure; when asked how it tasted, Lorenzo is said to have replied,
“As pleasant as anything can be to a dying man.”
|Lorenzo de Medici|
Draughts of powdered, pulverized or dissolved pearls were also used as a symbol of sacrifice, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Claudius speaks of a ‘union’, a common term for a pearl, in the lines,
“The king shall drink to Hamlet's better breath;And in the cup an union shall he throw.Richer than that which four successive kingsIn Denmark's crown have worn.”
|Sir Thomas Gresham|
A Spanish ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth boasted of the wealth and magnificence of his sovereign’s court. Sir Thomas Gresham, irked by this Iberian arrogance, countered that there were men in England who spent more on one meal than the Spanish King and all his grandees, and laid a wager that he could prove his claim. Some time later, this same ambassador happened to call on Sir Thomas at meal-time and found him dining on a very dinner, so declared to have won the bet.
|A Necklace made from 126,000 seed pearls|
Not so, said Sir Thomas, and took a box from his pocket, drew forth an exquisite oriental pearl, crushed it into a powder which he stirred into a glass of wine, and drank a health to his Mistress, the Queen. I have, Gresham told the Spaniard, refused £15,000 for that pearl, have I won the wager? The ambassador was forced to concede defeat.