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date: 25 January 2022

Abstract and Keywords

Since ancient times, pearls have been put to a wide range of uses—from decorative functions garnishing religious and secular objects, to medicinal applications for the cure of several maladies. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in particular, European scholars and aristocrats avidly collected and studied diverse specimens that became available thanks to new trade routes and markets. By means of these organic gems, scientists sought to understand nature’s mysteries while artists showed off their ingenuity and creative power. Especially appealing were large, irregular pearls, which were often transformed into expensive objects of virtue treasured over generations: an oddly formed pearl could become the body of a lion, a dragon, or a monster, whose heads, legs, and tails were recreated with gold, enamel, and other precious materials; or they could be transformed into a mermaid or a triton referencing thus the marine nature of the precious gem. They could even take the form of a caravel or a black captive, referring thus to the industry and commercial networks that made such treasures available to European patrons. Then as now, the labor cost of such desirable objects was concealed behind a veneer of beauty and opulence. In reality, by the turn of the sixteenth century, the pearl trade had become one of the most brutal forms of human exploitation. This chapter seeks to unveil the significance of objects usually deemed as innocuous decorative items.

Keywords: pearl industry, baroque pearls, chamber of wonders, objects of virtue, natural history, blackamoors, slavery

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