The History of Antique Star and Crescent Jewellery
Jewellery designers have long looked to the night sky for…
Those born in June have three radiant birthstones: alexandrite, pearls and moonstones. All three are somewhat linked by their relationships with light: alexandrite changes colour when viewed in different lighting conditions, pearls have their characteristic lustre and moonstones boast an almost mystical shimmer that bounces across cut stones.
All three gems have an important place in jewellery history, but it’s pearls and moonstones that can be most commonly found in antique, vintage and retro jewellery.
Pearls are an organic, or ‘biogenic’, gemstone meaning they are created by a living organism. Throughout history, pearls were the ultimate in luxury and rarity. Finding pearls required diving into the ocean or freshwater rivers, bringing oysters to the surface, cracking open the shells and peering inside. With no way of knowing exactly what was contained within, finding a natural pearl, especially one of exceptional size, was an extraordinary stroke of luck.
According to legend, Cleopatra, the last of the Queens of Egypt (69BC – 30BC), told Marc Anthony she could create the world’s most expensive meal. When they sat down together, Cleopatra took out one of her pearl earrings, crushed it, and dissolved it in a vessel of pure vinegar. The story goes that the pearl neutralized the acidity of the vinegar, allowing her to drink the concoction. Cleopatra won her bet with Marc Anthony because of the rarity and astronomical value of natural pearls during this time period – some suggest the pearl Cleopatra dissolved would be worth US $30 million in today’s value.
Throughout history, natural pearls emerge as a statement-making accessory in royal courts. Queen Elizabeth I gifted pearls to her favourites, including Sir Francis Drake of Spanish Armada fame, and adorned her dresses in thousands of pearls as a symbol of purity, wisdom and integrity.
In November 2018, a natural pearl and diamond pendant once owned by the French Queen Marie Antoinette sold for £28 million at auction, setting a new world record price for a pearl.
Prior to the development of cultured pearl techniques in Japan in 1893, jewellery was made with natural freshwater or saltwater pearls. Because of the lack of human intervention, natural pearls are more valuable and can command high prices among antique pearl jewellery collectors.
This is not to say that cultured pearls are any less beautiful or desirable. The process involves implanting a small shell bead, along with a tiny piece of mantle tissue, inside a living oyster. These ‘nucleated’ oysters are quickly placed back into water where they will begin to secrete layers of nacre around the bead to create a pearl. This allows pearls to be produced in much larger quantities and with far less room for chance.
The lustre or iridescent surface of a pearl is one of the main factors that contributes to its value. The effect is caused by the way light diffracts through the physical structure of layered nacre – the organic material secreted by the mollusc that creates a pearl.
This lustre has been used to great effect by jewellery designers for hundreds of years. Jewels of the early-to-mid-19th century focus exclusively on white or cream colour pearls, with more uniquely coloured ‘South Sea’ pearls gaining some popularity in the latter half of this century. The Victorian era showcased a love of seed pearls – small, seed-like pearls, sometimes with a flat back, used to create three-dimensional shapes. Baroque pearls enjoyed a resurgence in the Edwardian period, which was characterised by white metals, white diamonds and, of course, iridescent white pearls.
By the 1920s and 1930s, the trend for flapper dresses made long sautoir necklaces a must-have accessory. Pearls were a popular choice, reflecting a desire for monochromatic, unfussy jewels with plenty of movement. Even Coco Chanel, the famous fashion designer, encouraged her clients to wear “ropes and ropes” of pearls, adorned with tassels.
Somewhere between the elegance of the 1940s and the excess of the 1980s, pearls developed a reputation for being old-fashioned. The ‘twin-set’ stereotype of a pearl necklace and earrings, worn with a top and matching cardigan, seemed to symbolise someone stuck in their ways, unwilling to look to the future.
Only in more recent years have contemporary designers taken pearls and given them a modern makeover.
This beautiful June birthstone is a variety of the feldspar group mineral, orthoclase. It is composed of two minerals, orthoclase and albite. As these materials cool, the orthoclase and albite separate into stacked, alternating layers. As light strikes these layers it scatters into many directions, producing a phenomenon called, adularescence, otherwise known as a moonlight glow that seems to float across the surface of a gemstone!
Moonstones can be found across the world, but many of the finest examples are from Sri Lanka and have a strong blue shift – almost like a ghostly blue light that ripples just under the surface.
These gemstones have an history that’s shrouded in mythology. The Romans believed moonstones had the light of the moon trapped inside them, while ancient Indian cultures thought that moonstones had a prophetic effect, allowing their wearer or user to peer into the future. Up until the 1800s, many people believed that moonstones could make their wearer invisible to dark and dangerous forces.
In terms of antique jewellery, moonstones were particularly popular during the Art Nouveau design period, which favoured mystical creatures and natural, whimsical themes. Carved moonstones, especially ‘man in the moon’ gemstones, were created during the Victorian era.
Moonstone cufflinks, such as this pair from 1900, are especially collectible today. We especially love this moonstone and onyx men’s dress set from the 1930s, which demonstrate perfectly the Art Deco design style in men’s jewellery.
Many important designers used moonstone to great effect, including the Italian jeweller and goldsmith Carlo Giuliano (1831-1895). This Victorian Holbeinesque enamel pendant, circa 1885, contains peridot, moonstone and garnet gems in a design that is evocative of Giuliano’s signature style.
Although moonstones are widely available today, they come in a range of colours (brown, white, peach, yellow) and qualities. Exceptional quality moonstones with a strong blue shift are surprisingly rare and make for exquisite fine jewellery. At Moira Fine Jewellery we offer carefully selected modern moonstone pieces, such as this pair of diamond and moonstone earrings.
Pearls and moonstones both require special care and attention, such as keeping them away from high temperatures, avoiding chemicals and gentle cleaning. If in doubt, simply use a very gentle soap and warm water to clean your pearls and moonstones.