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Giorgio Riello, The "Global Age of Pearls”: Luxury and Exploitation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

Thu May 23rd 2024, 4:30 - 6:00pm
History Bldg 200 Room 307

Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne

Glasgow University Library · Stirling Maxwell 1288 4o 

Isaac Burghoorn

Giorgio Riello

 Kratter Visiting Professor at Stanford and European University Institute, Florence and the University of Warwick, UK


The early modern period was “the global age of pearls” Portraits of rulers, aristocrats and elites in both Europe and Asia show the abundant use of pearls in jewellery and clothing. Sought after for their lustre and their symbolism, pearls were a marine material transformed into the most astonishing works of ornamentation. Yet, pearls were also a natural resource produced by oysters harvested by the millions from the warm tropical waters of the Americas and the Indian Ocean. The case of pearl fishing off the coast of Venezuela in the early sixteenth century by the Spanish, highlights two factors: first, the intense fishing of pearls that led to their depletion, and second, the concomitant exploitation of enslaved divers. The organisation of labour and the tools used in pearl fishing depleted the resource rather than protecting or enhancing it. This paper argues, however, that the so-called ‘curse of the commons’ – the idea that when a number of people have unchecked access to a finite resource, they will tend to overexploit it – is not fate. A second case study – that of the Dutch East India Company’s pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar in the seventeenth century – presents a different understanding of pearls as a resource, one that emphasises profitability over time. The paper concludes by arguing that technology can be both a repository of processes and a tool of destruction.


Giorgio Riello is Professor of Early Modern Global History at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy and Professor of Global History and Culture at the University of Warwick, UK. He has published widely on global trade between Europe and Asia, and on material culture in the early modern period. He is directing an ERC-funded research project ‘CAPASIA: the Asian Origins of Global Capitalism, 1500-1800’ considering the system of trade in the Indian Ocean.