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American Baroque

Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700

By Molly A. Warsh

304 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 13 color plates., 31 halftones, 6 maps

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3897-3
    Published: April 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3898-0
    Published: March 2018

Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

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Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press

Pearls have enthralled global consumers since antiquity, and the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella explicitly charged Columbus with finding pearls, as well as gold and silver, when he sailed westward in 1492. American Baroque charts Spain’s exploitation of Caribbean pearl fisheries to trace the genesis of its maritime empire. In the 1500s, licit and illicit trade in the jewel gave rise to global networks, connecting the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean to the pearl-producing regions of the Chesapeake and northern Europe.

Pearls—a unique source of wealth because of their renewable, fungible, and portable nature—defied easy categorization. Their value was highly subjective and determined more by the individuals, free and enslaved, who produced, carried, traded, wore, and painted them than by imperial decrees and tax-related assessments. The irregular baroque pearl, often transformed by the imagination of a skilled artisan into a fantastical jewel, embodied this subjective appeal. Warsh blends environmental, social, and cultural history to construct microhistories of peoples’ wide-ranging engagement with this deceptively simple jewel. Pearls facilitated imperial fantasy and personal ambition, adorned the wardrobes of monarchs and financed their wars, and played a crucial part in the survival strategies of diverse people of humble means. These stories, taken together, uncover early modern conceptions of wealth, from the hardscrabble shores of Caribbean islands to the lavish rooms of Mediterranean palaces.

About the Author

Molly A. Warsh is assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh
For more information about Molly A. Warsh, visit the Author Page.


“An ambitious book . . . Warsh deserves high praise for thoroughly and thoughtfully exploring a topic that has rarely been treated outside scientific or gemological circles. The range of archival sources she exploited is astonishing.”--New West Indian Guide

“Explores how pearls were extracted, circulated, and valued and situates them within wider frameworks of imperial expansion, consumption, and global trade. . . . A carefully researched and beautifully illustrated book.”--American Historical Review

“A richly researched contribution to the literature on commodities in global history. . . . Quite convincing in encouraging readers to see that pearls were much more than a bauble; they had the power to shape an empire’s trajectory over two centuries.”--Journal of American History

“Revelatory . . . . Warsh constructs her account with such disciplined clarity that the experience of reading her remains one of lightness and even of luminescence.”--Times Literary Supplement

“Among the first forms of material wealth extracted from America, pearls are important to our understanding of how contact with the New World transformed the economic and cultural milieu of early modern Europe. In this impeccably researched book, Molly A. Warsh illuminates the diverse participants—from enslaved pearl divers in Venezuela to European merchants, jewelers, and customers—of the newly global pearl trade. A fascinating read for anyone interested in the complex nuances of world history during this formative period.”--Jennifer L. Anderson, Stony Brook University

"American Baroque is an original and illuminating account of the material culture of the early modern world. With elegance and precision, Molly Warsh tells the compelling story of how pearls traversed the globe, connecting nature, commerce, and power. She has excavated from the archives riches that match the luminescence of her subject."--Daniela Bleichmar, University of Southern California

Multimedia & Links


Warsh talks to Liz Covart on this episode of Ben Franklin's World. (Episode 241, running time 57:21).