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  • Pearl History Timeline -- Part 2


    The Romans acquired their taste for pearls from the Greeks, and for some centuries rivaled or overtook India as the world's biggest pearl depository.
    There was such competition for pearls in Rome that laws were made that only the elite could wear them. Statues of the goddesses especially Venus wore only the absolute best, largest, and most perfectly matched pearl earrings, in their marble pierced ears. Mortals got to fight over the rest. Large, perfectly matched pairs of pearls were wildly popular and worth far more than singletons.


    The Old Testament did not value pearls particularly and barely mentions them, and that mention is usually an interpretation of equivalent words. As shellfish were proscribed by religious law under Judaism, the ancient Hebrews may not have valued pearls much either.

    The New Testament was originally written in Greek, so it is not surprising that pearls are mentioned several times. Some of our best-known pearl metaphors come from this source, such as "the pearl of great price" and "pearls before swine".


    The Romans brought pearls back from everywhere they went, so naturally, they began bringing freshwater pearls home from European rivers. Although this search is not recorded river by river, it is quite certain that the Roman lust for pearls ignited a search that eventually reached into every riverbed in Europe emptying them of pearls, though not all into Roman coffers.

    From the fall of Rome, when royalty began to emerge in Europe, the new elite valued pearls, fished the rivers and traded for them. The crusades fueled the pearl trade from the Persian Gulf, so the European elite increased their stores of pearls. The discovery of America opened new sources of both sea pearls and freshwater pearls, which fueled the wardrobe of European nobility and the expanding merchant bourgeois class.

    The New World

    New World pearls were a major source of income for the Spanish Empire, just before gold and silver mining operations commenced in the new lands. The Gulf of California, Panama's "Las Islas de las Perlas" archipelago, the coast of Nicanor in Costa Rica and Venezuela's "Isla Margarita" had excellent pearl beds with great pearl production, with many famous pearls originating from these areas during the Colonial period (roughly between the 1560s to 1850s).

    Later the major American rivers became a source for an abundance of freshwater pearls to the European trade. It was not for centuries that the very ancient history of pearls in America was known.

    Some Pre-Columbian cultures living along the largest North-American rivers had large production of pearls. Many were found buried in shell-&-mud mounds and have degraded but are still clearly pearls. Tributaries of the Mississippi still produce pearls, but the mussels they come from were and still are, gathered for their shells.

    17th Through the 19th Century

    Over time, European royalty wore pearls in every possible way, as jewelry, as crowns, and sewn on clothes. The largest pearls as brooches and as many long-matched strands as possible dangled from bosoms and headpieces, cloaks, hats, and shoes. Artwork records lavish use of pearls by the gentry and centuries of paintings depicting nobles wearing ropes of pearls. During the 19th century al known sources of pearls were harvested relentlessly by collectors and traders.

    By the time photographs of royals and their friends became a fashionable way to display wealth, the entire European population of lords and ladies was awash with pearls, not just the queen and her direct kin. Maybe it was just for the sake of the photograph to wear all one's pearls at once, but it showed that these pearls are so numerous that some of them must have been acquired over centuries, been well cared for, and passed down from generation to generation, though many may have been recent purchases.

    The end of the 19th century was also the end of the ancient pearl trade. There would be few if any more natural pearls as the world had always known them.
    Return to Timeline with Egypt, China, India, Persia, Ceylon, Philippines, and Greece. thanks pearl expert Caitlin Williams for providing this timeline.

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