The Girl With The Pearl Earring – A Modern Classic Much Like Us

The Girl With The Pearl Earring – A Modern Classic Much Like Us

As pearl specialists, one of our most common requests, is for the perfect pearl earring. This forms the basis for our wonderful and diverse range of freshwater pearl earrings.  Claudia’s first earring design was the iconic Biography Pearl Hoops, with their detachable pearl charms. 

Storytelling underpins so many of our pearl designs, so we were thrilled to team up with Borough Press to celebrate their 10th Anniversary edition of Tracey Chevalier’s The Girl With The Pearl Earring.  A storytelling marriage of dreams! Borough Press commissioned a new cover to the book, a gorgeous reinvention of the classic Vermeer painting.  We love this work from the artist Romy Bluemel. Claudia recently re-read this modern classic and gave us her honest review: 

‘The Girl With The Pearl Earring has always been one of my favourite novels, published as it was in 1999, before the idea of my jewellery making had even been planted. Re-reading it now, in 2024, it remains as sharp and powerful as ever.  It is underpinned with forensic research, which doesn’t get in the way of the strong narrative drive, but instead adds depth to this vivid story.

My love for the history of the pearl is strong, and the role that pearls play in this novel is a crucial one.  When Griet, the ‘servant girl’ is asked by Vermeer to wear his wife’s pearls, to finish off the portrait of her he is painting, she knows that she is both doomed, and also, that she cannot refuse him. Pearls were the ultimate status symbol, and highly valuable in the 18th Century so a servant girl touching, let alone wearing pearls was a huge affront to the social order of the time.  

Throughout the story, Tracy Chevalier skilfully builds up the young Griet’s understanding of a painting, how to look and see, as she learns to observe and ‘see’ through working alongside Vermeer.  In the final, highly charged part of the book, Tracy has Griet understanding what is missing from the painting, yet she can’t suggest it to Vermeer, however much she had been adopted by him as his assistant, elevated within his studio way above her servant girl status.  She has to wait until he comes to his own conclusion. You know,’ he murmured, ‘that the painting needs it, the light that the pearl reflects.  It won’t be complete otherwise.’

However the power of the ‘master of the house’, the patriarchy that was so dominant in those days, is a salutary reminder of how low a status any woman had. Griet has to pierce her ear herself, as Vermeer asks her to (with no apparent worry as to how this would happen) and once the pearl is in, he demands she wears the 2nd earring, which even though he can’t see it and does not draw it, he needs for authenticity. Thus she has to pierce her ear there and then.

Back in the 18th Century pearls were the most precious gemstone, so the thought of a maid wearing, or even touching, a ‘lady’s’ pearls was a top-level crime, with prison as punishment.  They were that valuable.  In this novel, however, it is the crime of betrayal by Vermeer, of his wife, that the pearls represent. ‘And with my earrings’ Catarina (Vermeer) says.. ‘I will not have this in my own house’ she declared,’ I will not have it.’  This is the end for Griet.

The pearls in the story not only represented the social status of the family, but spoke of something else altogether; the fact that Vermeer had never painted his own wife. Here he was, painting the maid in his wife’s pearls. As the book says ‘Catarina was no fool. She knew the real matter was not the earrings.  She wanted them to be, … but she could not help herself.  She turned to her husband. ‘why,’ she asked, ‘have you never painted me?’

These pearl earrings, the single lustrous pearl drops, told so many stories, held within that one picture. I loved how Tracy Chevalier wove these narratives throughout this book.  Jewellery has that unique ability to layer up our own stories, both through the making and the wearing.  Pearls represent a similar metaphor for me, from their layers of nacre which the mussel builds to create the beautiful lustre, right through to selecting and setting and then wearing.  Precious stories.

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