One of the most evocative similarities among the four girls in the tronies are their earrings set with pearls. Girl with a Pearl Earring even owes its modern title to this costly ornament. As Dutch painter and art critic Jan Veth described the pearl in the painting in 1908: ‘More than in any other VERMEER, one could say that it seems forged from the dust of crushed pearls.’ Vermeer often suggested his pearls with just a few brushstrokes, as in this latter painting, in which he placed a single bright touch of reflected light on the top left of the pearl, while showing the soft reflection of her undergarment’s white collar on its right underside.
In general the women in Vermeer’s paintings are not bedecked with a wide array of jewels. We see no rings, brooches or bracelets on them, merely a few ribbons in their hair on occasion. This makes it all the more remarkable that in about half of his paintings Vermeer depicted pearl earrings and necklaces, following a fashion trend of the third quarter of the seventeenth century that was also pictured in the paintings of Gerard ter Borch, Gabriël Metsu and Frans van Mieris. In Vermeer’s time pearls were mainly imported from Asia, and the Gulf of Mannar, situated between the south-east of India and the west coast of Sri Lanka, was considered a prime location for pearl fishing. Pearls from this region were generally white in colour and weighed no more than 1 gram, which amounts to a diameter of 8 or 9 millimetres. The impressive size of the drop pearl that Vermeer depicted in his Mistress and Maid and Girl with a Pearl Earring would have been astronomically expensive and far beyond the painter’s means.
Several years ago, Dutch art historian Monique Rakhorst called attention to a sketchbook from the third quarter of the seventeenth century belonging to Thomas Cletcher, a jeweller in The Hague, which provides an illustrative picture of the pearl trade and its exorbitant prices. For example, Cletcher reports that he purchased two large pearls in London for a thousand pounds in 1632, from which he made a pair of drop-pearl earrings for Princess Amalia of Solms. Three years later he sold her husband, Frederik Hendrik, a string of twenty pearls, for which the prince paid 30,000 guilders. He noted the characteristics of the various pearls and jewels he fashioned, as well as their value, which could reach 40,000 guilders. This glimpse into the world of a seventeenth-century Dutch jeweller makes it probable that in Vermeer’s work we are looking at imitation glass pearls, which in his time were mainly sold by Venetian glassblowers.