Seed pearl jewelry was at one time so popular, and the values were so small in the United States of America, that a $1,000 seed-pearl set formed a principal feature of the Tiffany exhibit at the International Exposition held at the Crystal Palace, New York, in 1855.
Between 1840 and 1860, seed pearl jewelry was all the rage—so, of course, Mary Lincoln had to have a set for herself. The set usually contained a brooch, two bracelets, a collar, two earrings and a large spray or corsage ornament.
The foundation of all seed pearl jewelry is mother of pearl. The shell is brought in thin plates, measuring from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches square. One of the most popular and attractive patterns is the English scroll. If a design is to be repeated, a brass figure is made. For the fabrication of a brooch, for instance, a design is first made by drawing on a paper or cardboard; then a brass plate or pattern is cut out, leaving spaces wherever there are to be no pearls. After this a slab of stock mother of pearl is then pierced wherever a pearl is to be secured, and the pearls for its embellishment are chosen, and are strung onto the mother of pearl outlines with a special horsehair thread. All the work that remains for the jeweler is the addition of a pin or catch on the back.
The stringing of the pearls on the English scroll means probably twelve hours of continuous work. And efficient pearl worker received $3.50 per day in 1908, which consisted of not more than eight hours, as owing to the very trying character of the work, clear daylight was necessary to see the holes in the small pearls and in the mother-of-pearl shell.
First Lady Mary Lincoln wearing seed pearl jewelry.
Development of Seed Pearl Brooch
Fine horsehair was used for stringing seed pearl jewelry, because the holes drilled in them are usually too small to admit of the use of silk, and it was very important that what is known as pulled hair, taken from a living horse, should be used, as otherwise the hair is too brittle. This hair, in bunches of from eight to fourteen inches in length, was sold at an average price of $1.50 a pound, and frequently only one ounce was selected for use from the entire pound.
Learn more about First Lady Mary Lincoln on my website and blog.
The First Lady Mystery Series where Modern characters make History by Barbara Schlichting.
MARY LINCOLN: If Words Could Kill
A special thanks to: