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Introduction The Global Early Americas The story of pearls in the early modern period could be told as a simple one: pearls mattered a lot at the start of the era and less so at its end. They were worn as jewelry in 1500; they were still worn as jewelry in 1700. But such a story would be misleading, just as the simple beauty of pearls obscures the complexity that produced them and moved them throughout global markets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The story of pearls is not, in fact, simple. It is baroque. Today, pearls are predominantly associated with a modest adherence to rules of understated feminine beauty. Cheap or expensive, in pendant earrings or knotted ropes, pearls in the modern imagination convey an unassuming elegance to the woman who wears them, an air of unimpeachable and straightforward good taste. We think, for example, of a strand of pearls adorning a prim, feminine neck. Or of endless rows of the jewel sewn into hemlines and sleeves on extravagant costumes from a distant era. Or of a single luminous earring, enhancing the appeal of the bearer. They are an accommodating jewel: their simple, natural beauty presents no challenges and suggests that the woman who wears them will offer none herself. How did pearls shuck their earlier association with the riot of tastes and motivations that shaped their production and circulation four hundred years ago? American Baroque recovers this messier history of the jewel, seeking to restore complexity to our understandings of pearls. The beginning of this story is a familiar one. Columbus set sail from the southern Spanish port of Palos in August 1492, having struck a pact with the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella for a share of whatever wealth he might find as he charted a new route to rich Asian markets. Less familiar , though, are the terms of that pact. Pearls topped the list of the items he sought; 10 percent of the same was to be his. The crown’s explicit desire for this unusual maritime jewel put wind in the admiral’s sails as he helped bring Spain’s Atlantic empire into existence, and it was a prescient imagining of the wealth his wanderings would generate: pearls proved to be one of the most spectacular products of the New World Columbus stumbled upon. In the decades following his voyage, millions of them cascaded into Spanish { 2 } Introduction crown coffers and beyond from the pearl-­ fishing settlements established off the Venezuelan coast.1 Why did pearls occupy such a prominent place in Columbus’s sailing orders? How was it that this fragile little jewel, this organic product of a living creature, had the power to motivate and sustain visions of maritime empire? The pearl, a vehicle for both value and fantasy, had an appeal that was evident as a lustrous round white orb and, more subjectively, as an irregular baroque specimen, an ungainly excretion that could be transformed by the mind and hands of a skilled jeweler into the body of a dragon, the hull of a ship, or the torso of an enslaved boy (see Figures 1 [Plate 1], 27, and 29). American Baroque tells the history of what people did with and thought about pearls in the aftermath of Columbus’s accidental encounter with the Americas.The haphazardlyestablished pearl-­fishing settlements that emerged along the coast of Venezuela in the early sixteenth century embedded this early American export in global commercial circuits, transforming the market for the jewel and adding additional complexity to pearls’ long-­ standing associations with the romance and dangerof the sea.The profits and problems created along the Pearl Coast (as the region came to be known) drew this corner of the Atlantic world into an evolving geography of imperial jurisdiction, the contours of which reflected European dynastic concerns and the gradual integration of global markets as well as the demands of New World settlements. Pearls themselves were not a product of the New World, of course. Pulled from river mussels or oysters, pearls were found the world over, although they were associated in the European imagination with the luxury markets of the Far East. In the Americas, European interlopers encountered pearl wealth through gifts and burial practices alike far beyond the north coast of South America. Pearls (produced by various species of bivalves) were fished in several places throughout the Americas, a valued natural resource from the rivers of Virginia to the Pacific coast of what would become...


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