Pearls have a long history of being treasured gifts, dating back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, where they were prized for their radiant natural beauty and lustrous iridescence. In fact in many ancient civilizations, pearls were so highly valued that they were reserved for idols, religious statues, or kings and queens. Pearls have an almost equally long-standing tradition of being worn by a bride on her wedding day, and today pearls still closely associated with weddings, love, and marriage. Luckily, in current times, wearing pearls on your wedding day is something that is not restricted to only brides of the royal or ruling class, and pearls are not out of reach for even modern brides on budget.
Historical Significance and Tradition of Pearl Wedding Jewelry
Pearls have long been associated with love, marriage, and beauty, across many different cultures. An ancient Hindu legend attributes the discovery of the very first pearl to Lord Krishna, who then offered it to his daughter Pandaia as a wedding gift.
In ancient China, pearls were offered to idols and religious statues, and then were restricted to be worn only by the powerful and mighty. Similarly, in the late Middle Ages, many European countries passed “Pearl laws” that restricted the wearing or pearls to only those who ranked highest in society. Aristocratic ladies would often wear their pearls day and night, believing that doing so would give them better dreams and would ensure continued prosperity. Festive occasions such as coronation banquets, victory celebrations, and of course weddings, were also a very popular time to show off one’s pearls.
Perhaps most notably, at the famous Landshut Wedding of 1475 held in Bavaria, Germany, the spectacular display of pearls and pearl jewelry literally made history. The Landshut Wedding saw Hedwig, princess of Poland and Daughter of King Casimir III, marry “George the Rich”, the son of the Duke of Landshut. Ten thousand people are said to have attended the grand affair, and in addition to the bride and groom, the courts of both the Princess and the Duke presented such a lavish display of pearls that it was spoken of for centuries. Today, this historic wedding is commemorated at a festival in Landshut, Germany held every four years, with thousands dressing in medieval costumes (and donning pearls!) to recreate the event and life in the late middle ages.
Pearls have remained prominent in the most notable weddings of the last century (worn by both brides and their distinguished guests), from the nuptials of Queen Elizabeth II (1947), to the marriage of Jacqueline Lee Bouvier to then U.S. Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1953), to the “Wedding of the Century” between Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco (1956), to the media-hyped exchange of vows between Lady Diana and Prince Charles (1981), to finally, what has already been deemed the “Wedding of the 21st Century” between Kate Middleton and Prince William (2011).
Cultural Significance and Symbolic Meanings of Pearl Wedding Jewelry
Certainly, pearls are a beautiful gemstone – their luster and radiance in and of itself makes pearls a wonderful choice for a bride to wear on her wedding day. However, the longstanding popularity of pearls as the gem of choice for brides is likely due much more to their rich cultural significance and symbolic meanings. Pearls have long embodied attributes of love, purity, hope, good luck, and prosperity -aspirations that are closely associated with weddings. And so even as jewelry fashions have come and gone, pearls have remained a timeless choice for brides, as cultural and religious meanings play an important role in their value.
Going back to ancient civilizations, another Indian legend recounts the story of the daughter of the Great Mogul of Delhi, whose father chose for her to marry the old Rajah of Hyderabad. In love with a younger Prince, she refused to marry the Rajah and was banished to distant palace. While banished, her love the Prince of Benares was killed in battle. For years, the girl wept lonely tears in her isolated palace, until upon her death when the God of Love and Passion turned her tears into pearls and enabled her to regain her happiness. Even today, most Indian brides wear pearls to ensure love and happiness in their marriages.
In Chinese Buddhism, the pearl is considered one of the eight sacred elements of good luck, described as “the pearl that fulfills all wishes.” Ancient Chinese believed that pearls could protect them from illness and natural disasters, and were among the first of many ancient Asian cultures to use pearls as medicine.
In ancient Greece, the pearl was dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and as a result associated with love, marriage, and unrivaled beauty. Aphrodite, born from the sea, had risen from the water out of a shell and was herself compared to a precious pearl. Ancient Greeks believed that wearing pearls on one’s wedding day would promote marital harmony, and could even prevent newlywed brides from crying (this was perhaps more important in ancient times when marriages were commonly arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, and crying brides were not likely spilling tears of joy!).
Similarly, the Romans dedicated pearls to Venus, their goddess of Love. Romans also believed that the white radiance of the pearl made it a favorite of Diana, the Goddess of the Moon, who was also known for chastity.
The pearl has long been associated with purity, and ancient beliefs were eventually integrated into Christian symbolism. In the middle ages, painters and other artists often adorned Mary with pearls, in order to symbolize her purity and heavenly beauty, and church leaders began to embroider alter cloths, priests’ garments with pearls. Christ himself was seen as an exquisite pearl, born of the Holy Virgin Mary. Pearls – and particularly white pearls – them became a traditional Christian wedding accessory and wedding gift to a bride. In the Christian faith, pearls become associated with innocence, chastity, and honesty, and were thought to portend a happy marriage.
Incorporating Pearls into your Wedding
Today there are many ways to incorporate pearls into a wedding. Most often, pearls are worn by the bride as jewelry – whether in a pendant or strand necklace, a bracelet, or in a pair of earrings. White pearls are a timeless bridal accessory and make a stunning complement to a wedding gown. Elegant and sophisticated, pearl jewelry can add polish to a bride’s overall look, without overshadowing the dress, the ring or the bride herself.
Pearls may also be incorporated into a bride’s actual wedding gown, oftentimes as beautiful buttons or decorative accents embroidered into the dress. As an extravagant example, Princess Diana’s wddding gown included over 10,000 hand-embroidered mother-of-pearl sequins and pearls!
Pearls do not have to be reserved only for the bride (though interestingly, this was the case in some societies – as an example, a Venetian law of 1299 determined not only the maximum number of guests allowed at a wedding ceremony, but also decreed that “no one but the bride should wear pearl decorations”). Pearl jewelry is also a fitting accessory for bridesmaids, adding stylish elegance to a bride’s wedding party. Pearls are frequently given as a gift from the bride to her attendants, as jewelry to wear on the wedding day (and a gift that will also be cherished for years to come). Mothers of the Bride and Groom may also choose to wear pearls to note the significance and joyousness of the occasion. And last but not least, pearls can even be worn by the groom, the groomsmen or other special men participants in a wedding ceremony. Pearl cuff links are a wonderful way for the men to incorporate these beautiful gems (and their associated meanings and significance) into a wedding wardrobe.