13 December 2017

HSM 2017 #12: 'Parisian pearls' necklace

how to thread a 17th/18th style faux pearl necklace
my necklace
18th century ladies are occasionally portraited wearing pearl necklaces, often with quite large pearls which were probably fakes. The necklaces were tied with ribbons, the bow is occasionally visible in portraits. They're mainly documented for wear with the early mantua, and later with the robe à la francaise.

Pearl necklaces are quick and easy to make, as an alternative to the puffed ribbon necklaces often seen in the mid-18th century. They make a nice accent in an outfit or for accessorizing a period dressing scene.

Natural pearls, and imitations

Women in portraits often wear quite large pearls. If they were natural pearls, they would've been exceedingly expensive, so it seems likely that they are imitations. On the other hand, when a rich woman wears a necklace of small pearls, they may very well be natural pearls.

The norm seems to have been that pearls in a necklace are uniform in size, shape, and color. Most depicted necklaces have round pearls; oval freshwater pearls are relatively rare in paintings.

Methods for making faux pearls are described in a 1440s Italian document, and they have been produced in Venice at least since the 17th century. Jaquin in Paris came up with a different process about 1680. Both Venetian pearls, Parisian pearls, and Roman pearls are mentioned in literature, though I've seen conflicting accounts of which name should be matched to which manufacturing method. The pearl-like luster often came from fish scales, also known as essence d'Orient.

A pearl necklace timeline

Hedwig Eleonora of Holstein-Gottorp,
Queen consort of Sweden (1636‒1715)
David von Krafft (1655-1724)
Source: Wikipedia
Detail of 1687 fashion plate from
"Recueil  des modes de la cour de France"
(image #119)
Source: LACMA collection

Pearl necklaces that sit at the base of the neck are a common accessory in 1680s and 1690s French fashion prints. They're also fairly common in 17th century portraits, except for the last decade—in the 1690s, I can only find a couple of royals wearing them. Perhaps most of the pearls were fake, and weren't fashionable to use in portraits when everyone and their mother started wearing faux pearls with their manutas?

The prevalent style of portraiture in the first half of the 18th century featured a vast expanse of skin, and necklaces continued to be very rare. There are few portraits of women wearing a mantua, but these are often accessorized with pearl necklaces. Some turn of the century Spanish and Italian portraits feature a cross pendant hanging from a pearl necklace, this is also seen in some 17th century French fashion prints.

L'indiscrète, 1728
Jean Raoux (1677‒1734)
Source: Wikipedia
The Game of Knucklebones, 1734
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699‒1779)
Source: Wikimedia

In the 1720s and 1730s, pearl necklaces appear in genre paintings by Chardin and Raoux. Faux pearls seem to have become an everyday middle class accessory.

Unidentified woman, 1769
Alexander Roslin (1718‒1793)
Source: Bukowskis

Eventually the pearl necklace re-emerged as a fashionable accessory in portraits. In the 1750s and 1760s, pearl necklaces are seen in upper-class portraits again. Now they're usually worn by young women, and sit very high on the neck. Single and double row necklaces dominate, but there are some with three or more rows too.

As an alternative style, some women (maybe a few years older on average) wear their necklace just a bit higher than in previous eras; resting as high as possible on the shoulder/neck curve. Again, these necklaces could have one, two, or more rows.

A minority of the pearl necklaces in 18th century paintings incorporate drops and swags. They mainly seem to have been worn by royals and noblewomen. Other variations which are seen in portraits, but only rarely, include alternating large and small pearls, dyed pearls, and freshwater pearls (see photos on my Pinterest board).

All in all, pearl necklaces didn't quite reach the popularity they had in 17th century portraits; a ribbon (puffed or plain) tied around the neck is more common than pearls in rococo-era portraits. 

Madame de Pompadour, 1759
François Boucher (1703‒1770)
Source: The Wallace Collection
Madame de Pompadour,
detail of the painting to the left
Source: Wikimedia

Some women wear a single row of pearls centered on a ribbon underlay, or with a ribbon or lace ruff right below it. Perhaps that was a way to wear the pearls fashionably high on the neck, when pearls alone would've made wrinkles show (ask me how I know this…). This is the only painting I've spotted where Madame de Pompadour (who was 38 at this time) wears a pearl necklace—it's right above her neck ruff, and almost hidden by it. She also wears a pair of pearl bracelets, a fashion seen around the mid-18th century on some prominent ladies (these bracelets were a fashion in themselves, and were usually not worn with a pearl necklace).

Going out of style

C. E. Wadenstierna's wife and daughters, c. 1775
Pehr Hilleström (1733‒1816)
(public domain photo, from Cederblom vol. I)

Some of Pehr Hilleström's genre paintings from the 1770s show pearl necklaces, though they're more often seen as an accessory in e.g. a dressing scene, than actually worn. He always shows them used by women in silk, regardless of their station—never by kitchen maids in worsted. But, a couple of times they're used by secondary characters (daughters and a ladies' maid), while the lady of the house wears a ribbon necklace, pointing to pearls being a less fashionable choice. Also, I haven't spotted any pearl necklaces at all in his 1780s and 1790s paintings, which suggests that they went out of fashion sometime in the 1770s.

Dorothea Maria Lienau, 1772
Jens Juel (1745‒1802)
Source: (now defunct)

Fashion is ever changing, and once a fashion has become extreme it may very well disappear altogether afterwards, rather than returning to more normal proportions. Necklaces of very large pearls appear in some (early) 1770s portraits, including the 1772 portrait above as well as a second Jens Juel painting from the same year (the other one is in Ellen Andersen's book "Moden i 1700-årene", page 124). Therefore I suspect that faux pearls disappeared from high fashion soon after 1772, but less fashion-forward women may very well have continued to wear them.

Threading and fastening necklaces

Faux pearls were sold in strands, and presumably the customer needed to attach ribbons or other fastenings to make it a complete necklace. Many portraits show necklaces tied with a ribbon bow at the back of the neck. Blue, pink, and cream are seen repeatedly, but other colors were also used. Other types of fastenings might have been used as well, but the ribbon bow gives a very characteristic period touch, seen in many portraits.

detail from a Hilleström painting—
an unusually good view of the ribbon bow
The earliest image I've found of a pearl necklace tied with a ribbon is in a 1670s fashion engraving in "Fashion prints in the age of Louis XIV" (edited by Norberg and Rosenbaum, 2014), page 230. It's a back view showing a pearl necklace tied with a bow of black or dark ribbon, maybe 1‒1.5 cm (3/8"‒5/8") wide.

A painting callled "Det brustna pärlbandet" ("The broken pearl necklace") by Hilleström is listed in "Pehr Hilleström som kulturskildrare" volume I (by Gerda Cederblom; Uppsala 1927—it's painting #84 in the list of his known genre paintings and portraits). There's no photo, but the description says a maid is lying on the floor gathering the beads from a broken necklace (perhaps for her lady who is also in the painting). This tells us that the thread in necklaces occasionally would break, and that (faux) pearl necklaces weren't knotted (because if the string of a knotted pearl necklace broke in one place, you'd lose just one or two pearls).

Without definitive information on how necklaces were threaded in period, I chose the approach of re-threading a (perhaps broken) necklace at home, using improvised methods and basic 18th century sewing supplies. A sewing-weight linen thread would've been easily available, but a single thickness makes a flimsy and weak necklace, so it's quadrupled in my finished necklace.


how to thread a 17th/18th style faux pearl necklace
12 mm (½") faux pearls and
25 mm (1") ribbon

You need faux pearls, about 6 to 8 mm (1/4" to 5/16") diameter to represent genuine pearls, or 10 to 15 mm (3/8" to 5/8") or more for faux pearls. For the huge pearls fashionable in the early 1770s, you could use e.g. 20‒30 mm (3/4"‒1 1/4").

A good width for ribbons is about 12 to 25 mm (½" to 1") wide, though sometimes wider ribbons were used too. I suggest using silk taffeta, polyester taffeta, or China silk ribbon. You'll need about 75 cm (30").

You also need sturdy thread and a couple of needles. I used 50/2 linen thread, which I waxed.

  • Cut a 2 m (2 yd) length of thread. Thread a needle on the thread (single thickness), bring the ends together and center the needle. Then thread another needle onto the tail end. Now you have a doubled thread with a needle on each end.
  • Tie a knot at one end of the ribbon and tighten it. With China silk ribbon the knot seemed too small, so I folded the ribbon 8-10 cm (3" to 4") from the end, and formed a loose knot from double ribbon. Then I ran the needle between the layers of the folded end, and gently tightened the knot around the thread so that the fold of the ribbon barely extends beyond the knot. If you didn't have to fuss with doubled ribbon, just stitch through the knot once and then proceed.
  • Place the ribbon knot at the center of the thread. Stitch back and forth through the knot two or three times to secure the thread.
  • Start threading the beads, first a few with one needle and then the same beads with the other needle (it's easiest if you always use the tail end first, as that one takes up more room when you run it through the hole). (If your pearls have very small holes, one doubled thread will do—secure the tail end to the ribbon knot, cutting off the excess, then proceed with just one needle.)
  • Try on the necklace; you need a gap of about 2.5 cm (1") or more between the ends of the necklace, to allow for knots and tying a bow. 
  • When the length is right, form the same type of knot at the other end of the ribbon and stitch each of the threads through it a couple of times. Both knots should sit tightly against the beads. Tie the threads together and run each needle through the knot one last time to bury the ends. Snip off the threads and ribbon ends. 
  • Put the necklace on and form a bow with the ribbon to decide how long ends you want, then cut off the rest.

The facts

The Challenge: #12 "Go Wild—You can interpret this challenge as an excuse to make something that incorporates animal print, or wild animals in some way, or to simply make something wild and over the top."

I guess any non-domesticated animals would count as 'wild'? Period faux pearls often got their pearl finish from fish scales (from wild animals), and they imitated real pearls which come from shellfish (again, wild animals). And I think the necklaces with big pearls are over the top!

My submission: Faux pearl choker.

Material: 12 mm (½") faux pearls from thrifted necklace, 25 mm (1") polyester taffeta ribbon.

Pattern: Inspired by period paintings.

Year: 1680s to 1770s.

Notions: 50/2 linen thread and beeswax (from stash).

How historically accurate is it? 75 % on the Peacock scale—it looks and feels quite plausible, though silk taffeta ribbon would've been better.

Time to complete: About 15 minutes.

First worn: Not yet.

Total cost: About $2 for a thrifted necklace and $2 for ribbon, so $4 total.

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