Pearls of Great Price

“But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods both.”
– John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Vermeer 1665

Vermeer's The Girl With the Pearl Earring

Yesterday I wrote of swine, er, ‘fine swine’, those heirloom hogs that are being served up in fine restaurants in town and carved into art by our local “rock star butchers” who are relearning the lost art of making charcuterie. It seems only fitting to follow up with a piece about Pearls. Having grown up in the very religious South it is hard for me even to say the word, “Swine”, without hearing that Bible verse about throwing pearls, “Do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Ironically, I was just this week standing in the middle of a herd of Edisto Island Swine (Yorkshire White variety) photographing the eager breakfast event when my host and darling Edisto Island hog wrangler, Scott Dantzler, said the very same thing to me, “They’ll even eat fish heads….they’d even turn and eat you up.” He paused, and added “all but the bones.” Biblical indeed.

Genuine pearls are rare and unusual. They also are used as metaphor in much religious writing, and are interwoven into art and in literature, like in John Steinbeck’s book, The Pearl. They are accidental gifts. Treasure. Luck. Blessing. The prize. They symbolize redemption, love, constancy, and purity. They are also multicolored, and they shimmer with irredescence. And they are round, with no beginning and no end. “When (God) inscribed a circle on the face of the deep, I (wisdom) was there.” – from the book of Proverbs.

Growing up in the 1960’s in the South, proper young women were expected to embrace certain traditions, those passed down from generations before us. One of them is wearing pearls. Pearls are worn around the neck for all proper occasions. Little baby girls are given a necklace that we add pearls to every year so that when she is grown, she will have her own strand. At weddings and funerals, we pull out our good pearls to wrap around our necks. They have even made their appearance in some of my earlier figurative paintings about family, and they always stood for the way things were done and I poked a little fun at those traditions, at the rigidity, perhaps, of my Cotillion days of white gloved dances and perfect little shoes.

My own drawing after John White 1585

My own drawing after John White 1585

Not until I became a serious student of South Carolina history did I understand how very local a tradition is, how it goes back to the earliest stories of Carolina, and of the Native Americans even of Edisto Island, who buried their dead adorned with pearls, and who decorated their bodies with these jewels that used to be abundant and local. Some of the Earl of Shaftsbury’s favorite items were those made of Mother of Pearl.

“On Friday, the last day of April (1540)…the Governor took some on horseback and went toward Cofitachequi (a large and sophisticated Native American chiefdom near Camden). On the way there Indians were captured who declared that the chieftainess of that land had already heard of the Christians and was awaiting them in her towns. He sent (Captain) Juan de Anasco with some on horseback to try to have some interpreters and canoes ready in order to cross the river. “Cofitachique (or “Eupaha” according to the Indian boy, Perico, was on the bank of a river. Some Indians brought (the Lady of) Cofitachequi on a litter with much prestige. And she sent a message to us that she was delighted that we had come to her land, and that she would give us whatever she could, and she sent a string of pearls of five or six strands to the Governor. Another account says, “She was young and of fine appearance, and she removed a string of pearls that she wore about her neck and put it on the Governor’s neck.”

Seeing with fresh eyes is the gift, and I am delighted being able to connect the tradition that stands today to the Lady of Coftachique. Can’t you just picture that Governor on horseback with his neck laden with pearls? (Think Mark Sandford with a necklace of five or six strands of fat shiny pearls around his neck about now.)

Today, I can’t wait to adorn my newest little grand daughter with her own, like the ones I gave my first born, older grand daughter, last Christmas. Traditions in the South carry resonance if you get to the real beginning of the story. The Lady of Cofitachique’s tale involving such an early history of pearls in South Carolina is a rich and deep one that I can’t wait to retell when that little girl gets her first strand.

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I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in art, Arts & Culture, Food, Native American, South Carolina History, Writing
12 comments on “Pearls of Great Price
  1. I guess she hadn’t read that bible verse. :( I get sad whenever I think of the Native American tribes, and how beautiful their culture was, and how our European ancestors just trampled them. But I do love my pearls. Sweet Molly Ball bought me some freshwater pearls at the Charleston flea market because I fell in love with them, and hadn’t brought my wallet. My husband bought me some pearls the year we got engaged, and they are modeled after Grace Kelley’s pearls, the strand the Prince of Monaco gave her as a wedding gift. Pearls make me feel special. And they do remind me of cotillion, a fine tradition I enjoyed, and shared with my own daughter.

  2. It is,indeed, a grace to see Charlotte Hutson back conjuring a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.Charlotte connects for us Art,History,Poetry,Religion and even Politics (a string of pearls to Governor Sanford).She has the artist’s ever-fresh eyes out of whose window she let us see how so many things are wedded.On the string of pearls that Charlotte fashions for us, I imagine that each one is a station at which our hearts may offer a prayer.
    I love how Charlotte makes the universal personal by putting us in touch with five. beautiful women—Isabella,her granddaughter,Hana the grandaughter,Hadley the daughter and Charlotte the Big Mama Herself and the Lady of Coftachique,each a perfectly polished whole and round piece that graces the unbroken circle of the Low Country.Charlotte is called here and is passing that vocation on .Her gift is a pearl of great price.

  3. Pinkney says:

    My parents had one girl child and five grand daughters. They started the pearl strings for all the grand daughters, but the girls, being young and starting life in the sixties, didn’t seem to get into them all that much and the tradition sort of petered out as they kept loosing the strings and the grand parents resented having to start over periodically. I had forgotten about it, actually. This year my son is doing the first round of SC balls (Because everyone ought to know how to wear white tie and tails) and I am becoming reacquainted with some of these traditions.

    I can imagine Mark Sanford in a string of pearls and a little black dress. He’s tall and could carry it off nicely. If he hadn’t done so much for SC conservation I could get cranky about him and the ‘family’, the ‘C’ street house and some other things and all that stuff.

    I shouldn’t be surprised about the SC pearls. We have more – or have had – more oysters than imaginable.

  4. Reblogged this on Charleston Through an Artist's eye and commented:

    A reader recently wrote to me asking about early native Americans in the South, and another friend found this pearl of a post while researching Edisto Island’s unique hog wrangler, Scott Danzler. It is work re-posting I think.

  5. ailsapm says:

    Fascinating, I’ve always loved pearls but have never heard of this piece of their history.

  6. Ingrid says:

    Very interesting.

      • Deborah Robinson says:

        Very enjoyable blog, Charlotte. It made me remember the pearls I bought my mom from a trip to Hawaii. I buried her in them. The third anniversary of her passing is coming up next month, and I’m just now becoming comfortable with thinking about her life, instead of her death. Thanks for invoking some pleasant memories.

  7. That warms my heart, Deborah.

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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