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The History of Pearls

The 4000 Year History of Pearls

Pearls have been prized and collected for more than four thousand years, giving them the title of the world's oldest gem.

The Early History of Pearls

Pearls have long been treasured and highly valued in many cultures throughout history. As far back as 2,300 BC, Chinese records indicate that pearls were the prized possessions of (and gifts to) royalty. In India, ancient Hindu texts repeatedly refer to pearls, stating in one place that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl. In ancient Egypt, mother-of-pearl was used for decorative purposes as far back as 4,000 BC, although the use of actual pearls did not come until much later -perhaps the 5th century BCE.

Pearls in Roman History

In ancient Rome, pearls were a highly prized accessory, and worn as a symbol of wealth and prestige. They were such a status symbol, that an effort was actually made to prohibit the wearing of pearls by those not deserving of them. The most celebrated incident in Roman history involving pearls has to do with a banquet given by Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen, for the Roman leader Marc Antony. The banquet was described by Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his book, Natural History. Although some current historians dispute the details and significance of the banquet, there is general agreement that the incident described did indeed take place.
Cleo+Marc-Dinner.jpg - Marc Anthony and Cleopatra digesting the most expensive dinner ever

The essence of the story is that Cleopatra wagered Antony that she could give the most expensive meal ever provided. When the only thing placed in front of her was a vessel of sour wine (i.e., vinegar), Antony wondered how she would be able to win the bet. Whereupon Cleopatra removed one of her pearl earrings -said by Pliny to have been worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold -and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl dissolved in the mild acidic solution, and Cleopatra drank it down, winning her wager.

Note: Some state that she had the pearl crushed with a mortar and then the powdered material was added to her cup of wine.

Here is an interesting video about an experiment done to understand this very particular "feast":

Pearls in Greek History

The ancient Greeks also highly valued pearls, using them especially at weddings, where they were said to bring love. With many natural oyster beds lying along the Persian Gulf, the Arab cultures also placed a high value on pearls, which are described in the Koran as one of the greatest treasures provided in Paradise.

Pearls in Modern History

In the Western Hemisphere, Native Americans also valued the freshwater pearls they had discovered and harvested from lakes and rivers. The story is told of a Native American princess, who presented Hernando de Soto with gifts of animal skins, cloth, copper, and freshwater pearls. Colonizers from Spain, France and England all found native tribes using pearls as jewelry and for trade. Indeed, once the colonial powers discovered the sheer volume of pearls available in America's rivers, pearls became one of the chief products sent from the colonies back to Europe.

Along with freshwater pearls from North American rivers, saltwater pearls were harvested from the Caribbean and along the coasts of Central and South America. All these pearl supplies began to dry up during the 19th century, however, because of overfishing and pollution caused by industrialization.


The History of Pearls in North America

In addition to the pearls themselves, American mother-of-pearl also became a major export, both from the North American colonies and, later, from the United States. A primary use of mother-of-pearl was to make shiny, iridescent clothing buttons, of which billions were exported all over the world (mainly from Iowa). This lasted all the way through the mid-20th century when the invention of plastic quickly replaced mother-of-pearl for this use. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the history of pearls reached a major turning point.

At that time, several Japanese researchers had independently discovered the techniques that could be used to cause oysters to create pearls essentially "on demand." The man who finally combined the various technical processes with business acumen and worldwide marketing expertise, was Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a restaurateur. Today, Mikimoto is credited with single-handedly having created the worldwide cultured pearl industry.

The Effect of Pearl Culturing on Modern Pearls

The effect on the pearl industry of the discovery of pearl culturing, combined with Mikimoto's marketing enthusiasm, cannot be understated. During a span of less than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of years of pearl history were rewritten. Pearls -historically, the exclusive possessions of royalty and aristocracy -became available to anyone on the planet.

Rather than pearl divers hunting, often in vain, for the elusive, naturally formed pearls, pearl farmers could now cultivate thousands upon thousands of pearls in the same way as a wheat or corn farmer grows his own crop. And pearl lovers throughout the world would reap the benefits.


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