A Passion for Pearls

HOUSE OF SHADOWS webNicola here, and today I'm talking about pearls. It's two months until my first timeslip novel, House of Shadows, makes its debut in the US and I've been having a wonderful time reminding myself of the themes and inspiration for the book and browsing through the amazing portrait collection at Ashdown House which gave me so many ideas for the story.


The mirror and the pearl that feature in House of Shadows are imaginary historical artefacts but like so many aspects of the book they are inspired by historical fact. The idea of the pearl came from the Craven portrait collection which features a number of 17th century paintings that Elizabeth of Bohemia, the Winter Queen, bequeathed to William Craven on her death. Included are paintings of four of her daughters, Princes Elizabeth, Princess Louise Hollandine, Princess Sophie and Princess Henrietta Maria. In all of these pictures and in the portrait of Elizabeth herself, the ladies wear a single strand pearl necklace with beautiful big and lustrous pearls. 


A jewellery historian who came to Ashdown specifically to see the pearls in the portraits Louise Hollandine told me that they were part of a necklace of seven strings that belonged to Elizabeth and had originally been Medici pearls inherited by Mary, Queen of Scots and passed down to Elizabeth via her father James I. Elizabeth would pawn this necklace and indeed her other jewellery, furniture and anything else she could lay her hands on when she was particularly short of money during her exile, and then buy the items back if she had a special state occasion to attend. On those occasions she would assemble all seven strands of the necklace to wear together, and very impressive it would have looked too.


On her death Elizabeth left one string of pearls to each of her daughters but eventually, as a result of inheritance, six of the strings came back together again. The exception to this was the string that had been given to Princess Henrietta Maria on her marriage to the Prince of Transylvania in 1651. When she died only 6 months later she was buried in her bridal gown, wearing the pearls.


The possession of the necklace was hotly disputed between the British Royal Family and the House of Hanover, both of whom were descended from Elizabeth and both of whom wanted the necklace. Not only did Queen Victoria quarrel with her German cousins over whom it should belong to but she also caused a diplomatic incident when she contacted the authorities in Romania and asked that the tomb of Henrietta Maria be opened to extract the extra string! When her request was refused she was not amused!


Elizabeth Princess PalatineThis picture shows Elizabeth's eldest daughter, also called Elizabeth, wearing her strand. This Elizabeth was considered one of the greatest beauties of the age and was known as "The Star of the North." She was also a great philosopher and correspondent of Descartes. It is said that the large drop pearl in this portrait is "The Bretheren" a famous pearl that brings bad luck to the wearer. Elizabeth of Bohemia was, arguably, a very unlucky Queen but it is easy with the benefit of hindsight to attribute this to her poor choice of jewellery!


Cursed pearls are not unusual and range from the story of the Roseate Pearl, said to have caused the sinking of the ship Koombana off Australia in 1912 to “La Peregrina”, which was discovered in the 16th century, belonged to Mary I of England and was bought in 1969 by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor. Whether or not there is any truth in the stories of bad luck that cling to these famous jewels they are certainly great inspiration for a writer!


I was lucky enough to inherit a lovely little strand of pearls from my grandmother with, Golden pearls as far as I know, no curse attached! I'm not really a pearl girl although I do think they can look gorgeous.  Of course pearls are not the only jewellery to have tall stories attached. Many famous jewels seem to have an air of mystery that attracts tall tales! Do you like pearls or do you have a preference for other precious stones – or quite different sorts of jewellery?