This type of jewelry first appeared early in the 19th century, during the Romantic period of Queen Victoria's reign. This period was characterized by all sorts of romantic symbolism, so seed pearls fit in beautifully with the jewelry styles. It reached the height of its popularity around the middle of the 19th century.
Generally, seed pearl jewelry was sold in sets, which consisted of bracelets, earrings, brooches, a collar and a corsage ornament. A gift of seed pearl jewelry was often given to a girl on her 18th birthday, or to a bride before her wedding.
The designs of the jewelry were very delicate and quite ornate, often with flower or scroll motifs. It was generally made from hundreds of tiny seed pearls which ranged in size from a minute 1.5mm to 5mm in size. These pearls were then sewn into a design using white horsehair thread and backed in silk.
During the mid 2oth century, Miriam Haskell used seed pearls (as well as baroque pearls) in her designs with great success, bringing back a short revival of the popularity of them in jewelry. However, most of her designs used artificial seed pearls, rather than genuine ones.
It is rare to find good examples of Victorian seed pearl jewelry today because it is so delicate and fragile. Only rarely are entire sets found intact.
The design featured here is a full parure of seed pearl jewelry received by Mary Lucile Stevens in 1836 as a gift from her mother. These pearls were passed down for several generations, as gifts to succeeding daughters in the family on their 18th birthdays. In 1984 the sons of the last woman to inherit the pearls donated them to the Smithsonian where they are now on display in the Museum's Treasure House.