Vermeer’s Pearls

In A Lady Writing, she seems to be wearing an immense pearl. Yet, the truth is that Vermeer painted a glass “drop earring” which had been varnished in order to look as if it were a pearl. These kinds of earrings were very fashionable in Holland and other contemporary painters such as Van Mieris, Metsu or Ter Borch used to portray them in their paintings. These artificial pearls were created by M. Jacquin in the 17th century and, at the same time, cultured pearls were also coming in from Venice.

Pearls, in general, were related to vanity, but also virginity. Therefore, most likely they were used as an icon to show that they were still virgins to society and, especially, to men. However, pearls were also a symbol of social status. In 1660, an English diarist Samuel Pepys paid 4 1/2 pounds for a pearl necklace, and in 1666 he paid 80 pounds for another, which at the time amounted to about 45 and 800 guilders respectively (an average Duthc house might cost 1,000 guilders). Thus, it can be concluded that pearls were associated to richness.

A Lady Writing and her little pearls