Venice conquering the world with glass pearls, object of worship and exchange for centuries

10 November 2021

Venice, November 5th, 2021 – Beautiful, coloured, loved, sophisticated, around the neck of women and men at the market as to indicate their social classes. Placed in Vudu shrines and burials, used in tribal initiation and religious ceremonies. For centuries, glass pearls were used as objects to be exchanged while today, they are used as precious necklaces to wear on every occasion. Exchanged with gold, ivory, and slaves with a fistful of pearls, in 1626 it is believed that Dutch Peter Minuit had bought from Indians what now is known as the island of Manhattan. The story of pearls gets lost in the mists of time, and this is a story that Augusto Panini, considered as the expert in this field, built back with passion and curiosity. His collection is mainly made up by “trade beads'', so pearls used for trade, precious proofs of commercial, religious and cultural connection of West Africa with different countries such as Egypt, Siria, Persia, India, Netherlands, England, France and Venice, from the VIII to the XX century.

“At some point in my career as textile entrepreneur, at the end of the 70s, I found myself in Nigeria and Benin, selling polyester headscarves for Islamic communities – he said –, a very difficult although promising market in expansion. I was fascinated by the environment of those places that had gained their independence and that were rebuilding their post-colonial identity. At that time, Nigeria was very rich, as a consequence of the offshore oil extraction while instead, the tiny State of Benin could just rely on trade. In Benin, a fascinating country deeply linked to tribal traditions, the Vudu was, and still is today, the state religion. Its little villages of the north used to live in realities comparable to the Middle Ages, in which it was the change of seasons that regulated the presence of shepherds and fishermen, and where local sovereigns ruled on little independent kingdoms. This world enchanted me and made me discover that, for more than ten centuries, it used to have strong trade connections with the Mediterranean and Middle East countries. As a consequence, among the most imported goods there were glass pearls that, until the XV century, were produced in Egypt and in the East, while later in Venice”.

This is how Panini began to gather glass pearls in markets and villages. He also began to list them, trying to provide information about the history and origin of pearls. Throughout research in the sub-Saharan’s areas, he often found pearls made of stone or shells that dated back to the humid Sahara period, around the 8000 and the 2500 b.C. The use of pierced spherical objects dated back to the Neolithic.

“Around the III millennium b.C, in Egypt, mixtures of silica sand and colourful minerals were used to produce little coloured pearls or to cover steatite pearls with no colours, in order to give them light and colour – he explained –.For sure, Phoenicians were the first great merchants of jars - used as perfume carrier - and glass pearls through the whole circumnavigation of the Mediterranean, followed by Romans who made glass pearls produced at Alexandria, Tiro and all the other provinces of their empire famous, from Britain to Dacia”.

Arab caliphates were also great producers of glass pearls from the VIII to the XV century, exporting the goods in West Africa and beyond the Saharan region, in the empire of Mali. Glass pearls were used as exchange goods in order to obtain gold, ivory, precious kinds of wood and slaves. Nevertheless, in areas such as Persia or Afghanistan, along the Silk Road, pearls were also used to buy precious goods such as the Baltic amber, brass tools, precious fabric, and pearls made of tough Indian stones.

The discovery of the Americas opened new markets to European goods and so, the glass pearls became an appreciated good since the first year of the discovery. It was Hernan Cortes who took to the royal court of Montezuma, as an homage to the sovereign, a necklace made with Rosetta glass pearls and after one century, the same pearl will be reported on the list of goods that were given to Lenape Indians by Dutch governor Peter Minuit in order to buy the island of Manhattan (the pearl’s value correspond to 60 Dutch guilders). Later, in beaver skin markets people preferred to pay native Americans with venetian glass pearls, used to decorate their hats and chests, which until that time were decorated with tiny pearls and white and grey shells. This literally changed the culture of native Americans who, thanks to pearls bright colours, became polychrome as happened in Kenya and South Africa for the Samburu, Masai and Zulu tribes.

Mosaics pearls, blown pearls, spiral pearls, flag pearls, monochrome pearls, plumed pearls, or again daisy pearls: a universe of colours and techniques concentrated in few millimetres, for just an element of design and beauty with which Venice, in its 1600 years of history, conquered the world. The Serenissima Republic, but especially Murano, for at least three hundred years, benefited from a flourishing transoceanic trade since glass pearls found buyers in the Americas, in Africa, in the Middle East and India. “Thanks to the imagination and the expertise of venetian glass masters who knew how to translate the need of several different ethnic groups not only by reproducing ancient archetypes, but especially by proposing - with success – exclusive venetian models, Murano glass pearls later became among the most popular and precious objects, worn, guarded and passed from generation to generation – underlined Panini. “It is in Ghana that, still today, it is possible to meet on formal occasions in embassies or other institutional places people wearing an ancient venetian glass necklace as a sign of distinction”.

Since the beginning of last century Murano has had glass pearls factories with more than thousands of workers, with at least ten thousand women working on decorations and the threading of pearls. Today, production has dramatically fallen, although the precious pearl is proposed as an element of design on bags, shoes, and hair accessories. Indeed, many are the worldwide famous fashion designers that now use them for golden precious necklaces, giving back to glass its real value as precious material, the same value it had for centuries.