Back to Journal

Pearls before Poppies – Claudia’s interview with Rachel Trethewey



The history of pearls is long, rich and endlessly fascinating.  As the world’s oldest known gemstone it has many stories to tell from Cleopatra dissolving one pearl in a glass of wine to prove Egypt could host the most expensive dinner, to that of the single pearl drop that Charles 1 was wearing as he was beheaded.

However a more recent, and relatively unknown, story has crossed my path. It is not only one of change in our social history (it describes the end of the aristocracy as they were known, leading to a more egalitarian society), but it coincided with the moment in time when Mikimoto successfully managed to culture pearls, thus similarly bringing an egalitarian future to the pearl.

PEARLS BEFORE POPPIES by Rachel Trethewey tells this powerful and important story. In February 1918, while the First World War was still being bitterly fought, Lady Northcliffe launched a campaign to raise funds for the British Red Cross.  Her idea?  To collect enough single pearls, given as donations, to create a unique necklace that she would raffle.  This was a time when only natural pearls were available, and as such were the preserve of the elite – and just one pearl would be a hugely valuable donation for anyone to give.

Her campaign was strongly supported by her husband’s newspapers, The Times and The Daily Mail.  And what started as a high society campaign captured the nation’s imagination. An incredible 4,000 pearls were donated, each accompanied by a note explaining why the donor was giving them.  Here is one:

‘It is not a perfect pearl, but it is the only one I have. I send it in memory of a pearl beyond all price already given, my only son, and I feel that perhaps one pearl in that great historic necklace from me may hang side by side with those of greater beauty, even as the mothers of only sons stand side by side with those who, richer, could give more.’ Edith Fielden, 21 April 1918.

Pearls of all quality were donated, and their stories relayed via the Daily Mail, which helped the campaign to snowball; one pearl was donated from a necklace that had survived the Titanic,  another a whole community had worked together to send.  These myriad pearls created 41 necklaces in total, all carefully sorted and created by three jewellers of the day –  Garrard, Goldsmiths and Silversmiths, and Carrington and Company. They graded and selected the pearls to show them to their best advantage, taking 3 whole days to work through them all.  Before the auction of these finished necklaces there was an exhibition visited by over 16,000 people which showed each individual pearl with its story card beside it. These cards have sadly not been found.  However from the Christie’s auction the following quote sums up the value of these necklaces:

‘Whatever it fetches will not matter to the buyer. It will be historic as the jewels of Marie Antoinette;it will be an heirloom more famed than the Hope diamond.  Other pearls came from the sea.  These pearls came from human hearts, and human tenderness and gratitude will run up their purchase price.’

And as of a month ago, not one of these necklaces, sold in a special blue velvet red cross box, had been unearthed.

Thrillingly one has now been discovered!  A month or so ago a family read about Rachel’s book in their local paper and, while wishing to remain anonymous, have allowed the necklace to be photographed and it will be exhibited at Christies in early December to mark the 100th anniversary of the 41 necklaces being auctioned.  Rachel has seen the necklace and says the pearls are very big and beautifully lustrous.  I imagine their value would be over £200,000 due to the history and size, but that is a conservative estimate.

As we approach the centenary of Armistice Day, it pays us all to pause and reflect.  As a mother of three children, all of an adult age, the book made occasional very hard reading – the stories were so vibrant and all too real and close to home.  All the stories moved me, but one of the most emotional quotes that has stayed with me from the book is as follows:

‘I think it (peace) will require more courage than anything that has gone before.  It isn’t until one leaves off spinning round that one realises how giddy one is.  One will have to look at long vistas again, instead of short ones, and one will at last fully recognised that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war’ Cynthia Asquith; diaries, 7th October 1918 p 480.

As I mentioned at the beginning, particularly fascinating to me is the parallel Pearl story that runs to this fund raising story.  As society became more egalitarian, cultured pearls opened out this wonderful gemstone to so many more people for which we must all be forever grateful – not quite on the same scale as our gratitude owed to those who gave their lives for our freedom, but a very small nod is worth a mention.

I would like to personally thank Rachel for taking the time to talk to me about her book. Our conversation is too long to record here but it was incredibly helpful in making me understand her writing and remembering that civilized worlds can dissolve so rapidly in the face of war, and that the humanitarian spirit, and culture, is vital to stop this happening.