American Baroque

Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700
Molly A. Warsh
Cloth price: $39.95
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Paperback price: $29.95
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Publisher: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press
Imprint: OIEAHC
Cloth/Hardcover Publication Date: 04/2018
Pages: 304
Cloth ISBN: 9781469638973
Paperback ISBN: 9781469666259
Paperback Publication Date: 08/2021
Ebook ISBN: 9781469638980


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 associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh


“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

“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

“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.”–Brill Journals

“Warsh manages to cover two centuries and touch on a wide variety of topics in a concise volume. . . . Historians and students of the Spanish empire, luxury trade, the Columbian exchange, and world history will find this a valuable addition to existing scholarship. . . . Today most people know how [pearls] are formed, but with American Baroque, we now know that they in turn contributed to the formation of empires.”–Hispanic American Historical Review

American Baroque is an original, solidly documented monograph rich in archival sources that anyone with an interest in the history of commodity trade, colonial labor regimes, luxurious material culture, or, indeed, pearls, in the early modern Iberian world and beyond, should read. . . . [It is] commendable in its attention to detail, courageous in its geographical breadth, and innovative in its subject matter.”–Winterthur Portfolio

American Baroque uses pearls as a heuristic to explore Spanish imperialism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. . . . Warsh demonstrates an Iberian, and subsequently a wider European, fascination with pearls as metonym for maritime empire. . . . These glimpses—missionary tracts, sunken treasure, stolen booty, valued possessions, subtle iconographies—are mined with considerable skill.”–Journal of Early Modern History

“Beautifully written and deeply researched…in Warsh’s capable hands, microhistory becomes a powerful tool for exploring the nuanced and dynamic way in which the processes of colonialism, global capitalism, state formation, and local ecologies became co-constitutive and entangled.”–William and Mary Quarterly

“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

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