Revered for their exotic beauty and allure, pearls enchant us with their immaculate shape, miraculous inner glow and mysterious outer iridescence. For thousands of years, pearls have been highly regarded as gems beyond value in many cultures; they have captured our collective imagination, colored our personal dreams, warmed our hearts, decorated our homes and bejeweled us. No one knows how pearls were first uncovered, making it a subject of many legends, stories, myths and fairy tales. All we know is that the discovery of natural pearls was the chance result of search for mother-of-pearl shells: the finest materials originally used by artists to create ornaments. Archaeological evidence suggests that ancient Sumerians, Pacific Islanders and pre-Columbian Americans were more fascinated by the larger iridescent surface of mother-of-pearl from mollusk shells, which also happened to be easier to find.
It is said that before the 19th century, when Japanese shell divers stumbled upon pearls, they merely kept the shell and disregarded the content as useless! In the pre-Columbian Americas, people ate the flesh of Abalone mollusks and used the luminescent shells as inlay on carved wooden ritual objects, or to adorn objects made of bone and ivory. Polynesian children supposedly played with pearls as a substitute for marbles. Indeed the Tahitian black lipped oyster shell, Pinctada Margaritifera, was in such high international demand for decoration and making buttons, that its abundant supply was almost exhausted by the end of the 19th century.
Historically, the world's best known pearls came from the pristine waters of the Persian Gulf, close to what is now known as Bahrain. Due to the discovery of a pearl necklace in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess from 520 B.C., archeological evidence suggests that Persians were the first to appreciate the excellence of pearls and mother of pearl shells called “sadaf.” Worth their weight in gold in antiquity, pearls were naturally created “by chance” without human intervention and were collected by breath-hold divers.
Geographically, during the long history of pearls, the principal oyster beds lay in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, the Indian Red Sea and the Gulf of Manaar, between India and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), where Marco Polo visited in 1294. He was so moved by his experience with pearls that he went to great lengths in describing the inherent dangers of pearl fishing. Pearls were only worn by nobility in the early Ptolemaic era. Ancient Middle-Eastern cultures appreciated healing powers in pearls and ground them into powder to cure anything from heart disease to epilepsy and from indigestion and fever to eye diseases and bleeding. Indians believed in the power of pearls to give peace of mind as well as strength of body and soul. Due to the abundance of pearls in the area, traditionally both men and women wore pearls in the Orient.
In Islamic thought, pearls symbolize perfection and completeness of the soul, richly rewarded in Paradise. The Middle Eastern affection for the pearl is enshrined in the Koran’s description of Paradise where: "The stones are pearls and jacinths; the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths, and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable luster, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls."
After the invasion of Persia by Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ encounter with the alluring pearl, special interest in this gift of the Goddess of the Sea was spread through the Mediterranean. Ancient Greeks started wearing pearls at weddings as a symbol of increasing love and harmonious marriage. Subsequent conquests of the Orient exposed the Romans to this precious jewel, making it the most favored treasure of the wealthy and powerful.
Roman women of nobility came to esteem pearls as a measure of prestige, status and wealth. They went to sleep with their pearls in order to dream better dreams, and to be reminded of their worth upon awakening. Consumed by their passion for pear-shaped pearl earrings, Roman women petitioned Julius Caesar to decree that only women of the highest echelons be permitted to experience the joys of pearls. To exhibit their wealth, women tirelessly embroidered so many pearls into elaborate gowns that they are said to have walked on pearl-encrusted hems! Even their upholstery was ornate with pearls!
During their glory days at around 100 B.C, Roman emperors were so enamored by the allure of pearls that the extravagant Roman Emperor Caligula had a consul made for his beloved horse, decorated with a pearl necklace! The Romans’ insatiable desire for pearls is even reflected in their language. The Latin word for pearl is “Margarita” which literally means "unique", confirming that no two pearls are identical, just as no two snowflakes are alike and no two persons have the same thumb prints. According to the historian Suetonius, at the zenith of pearl fever in the Roman Empire during the first century B.C., the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign through the sale of just one of the pair of his mother's pearl earrings! Indeed, antique objects adorned with pearls have been discovered at archaeological sites across the Roman Empire, from Syria to North Africa and Northern France.
Some historians even venture to claim that Julius Caesar’s lust for precious pearls was one of the reasons for the Roman invasion of the British Isles in 55 B.C. Scottish fresh water pearls were well known to Romans as some of the finest. In fact, the famous Scottish Abernethy Pearl was discovered in the backwaters of the river Tay by Bill Abernethy in 1967. This perfectly round white Scottish natural freshwater pearl weighs 2.225 grams. Sold to Cairncross Jewellers in Perth, it was available for viewing for a while but was later sold for an undisclosed amount.
In Egypt, decorative mother-of-pearl was used at least as far back as 4200 B.C. However, their use as personal adornments has been related to the Persian conquest in the fifth century B.C. There’s a famous story involving the seduction and taming of the Roman leader Marc Antony by Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen. In his famous book, Natural History, the Roman historian and world’s first gemologist, Pliny the Elder, describes an actual incident in which pearls play the pivotal role at the most celebrated banquet in historical literature. To convince Rome that Egypt possesses such rich heritage and wealth that makes it unconquerable, Cleopatra wagers Marc Antony that she could consume the entire wealth of a country in a single most expensive dinner in history. As the queen sits before an empty plate and a goblet of sour wine (i.e., vinegar), Marc Antony reclines bemused, wondering how Cleopatra intends to win the bet. Cleopatra removes one of her magnificent pear shaped pearl earrings --worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold -- and crushes it into her goblet. When the pearl dissolves in the strongly acidic solution, Cleopatra toasts Marc Antony’s health and drinks down the wine. Astonished by this act, Antony declines to drink his own dinner -- the matching pearl earring – admitting that she had won the wager. After Cleopatra’s death the remaining pearl was taken to Rome, halved and placed on the earlobes of the statue of Venus in the Pantheon.
Pearls equally found their way into the hearts of the royalty in Byzantine. Theodora, the youthful daughter of a humble bear trainer in Constantinople, abducted and abandoned by a military man, was fated to meet the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who ended up falling in love and marrying her. Together, they ruled over a powerful artistic and intellectual cultural centre of the time. Theodora’s beauty is depicted in the mosaics of the San Vitale church of Ravenna. It is said that Theodora was so in love with pearls that her earlobes could no longer bear the weight of her long heavy pearl earrings. So she took to wearing a diadem with long strands to which she could add more pearls.
During the Middle Ages, young European maidens of royalty enjoyed wearing pearls in strands while their knights and warriors used mother of pearl in their weapons and armor, believing that it would protect them from harm and bring them luck. Alchemists, on the other hand, tried to explain how pearls of such beauty and value could be created in such unseemly places as the muddy depths of ocean floors. Like their Persian mystic brothers, the alchemists believed that when a single teardrop from an angel or a dew drop from the moon falls from the heavens and finds its way into the open heart of an oyster, a pearl is born. Leonardo Da Vinci believed that pearls have the power to transform all who wear them into virtuous and true beings.
As trade routes between the East and West gradually expanded and new civilizations surged across Asia and Europe, the significance of pearls became even more widespread. The church was not exempt from the prevailing pearl craze. As a symbol of God’s love, clerics made use of the immaculate natural pearl to adorn altars, priestly robes and religious objects such as rosaries and crosses.
Beginning in the 1500’s as exploration of the Americas opened new horizons, pearls became increasingly abundant in Renaissance Europe. Before sweeping mines for gold and silver in the 1530’s, when Christopher Columbus discovered America, he came across numerous Native American tribes using freshwater pearls from the Mississippi River as decorations and jewelry and for trade. According to one account, a Native American princess presented Hernando de Soto with abundant gifts of animal skins, cloth, copper and freshwater pearls. Indeed, the sheer volume of pearls discovered in North America's rivers and lakes prompted the colonizers to name the New World “the land of pearls”.
The discovery of freshwater pearls in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins did not quench the colonists’ lust for the riches of America. Further south, they harvested saltwater pearls from the Caribbean and along the coasts of Central and South America. From here, the principal export was the vast treasure of looted pearls, mostly to Spain and Portugal where trade routes were established. Lisbon and Sevilla became new centers of pearl trade, flooded with a surplus of booties from the Persian Gulf and India from the East, and the Caribbean from the West. Plunder of pearl rich oyster beds from East to West allowed the European royalty to lavishly adorn themselves with what had become a mere symbol of wealth, status and power in an age of splendor. High ranking women wore pearl ornaments with matching sets of necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches.
The most extraordinary pearl to reach Europe from America was the Peregrina pearl, with an incredible size of an egg. Reportedly, the Peregrina was found by a slave who was granted freedom by his owner who later sold it in exchange for a large farm and a mayoral post. Phillip II of Spain got hold of this amazing gem and gave it to Mary Tudor as wedding gift.
In an effort to distinguish the identity of the royal family, the Duke of Saxony established a law in 1612, prohibiting the nobility, professors, doctors or their wives from wearing pearls. After Mary Tudor’s death, however, this most precious jewel of the 16th century, travelled back to Spain. Subsequently taken to France by Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon I), the Peregrina briefly adorned Empress Eugenie, consort to Napoleon III, known for her trend setting style. But the pearl remained in the hands of the Napoleons until 1837 when Prince Louis Napoleon sold the Peregrina to the Marquis of Abercorn to overcome his financial difficulties. The virgin pearl was later inherited by the Marquis’ son who pierced it to prevent loss (as it had come loose several times before). At the time of the piercing, the Peregrina’s weight was recorded at 10.192 grams. Astonishingly, however, in 1969, actor Richard Burton purchased the Peregrina for his beloved Elizabeth Taylor for $37,000. As an exclusive privilege of royalty in previous centuries, this transaction would have been impossible, let alone for such a relatively low price.
The “Queen Pearl” was another noteworthy freshwater pearl which found its way from North America to Europe. Found by Jacob Quackenbush, a carpenter in New Jersey, this amazing pearl with a weight of 4.65 grams, was sold for a measly $1500 to Charles Tiffany, the most famous wealthy jeweller in America. The pearl was sent to a gem dealer in Paris and subsequently acquired by Empress Eugenie for an undisclosed sum.
“The Hanoverian Pearls” were also highly coveted pearls, consisting of 6 long rows and 25 loose pearls, some were allegedly as large as nutmegs. Originally owned by Pope Clement VII, they were given to his niece, Catherine de Medici, on the occasion of her wedding. When Catherine de Medici’s son, the Dauphin of France married Mary Queen of Scot, he gave her the Hanoverian pearls as wedding present. Unfortunately Mary Queen of Scots was brutally beheaded, leaving an empty treasury. So the Hanoverian pearls were sold to Elizabeth I over Catherine Medici’s strong objections.
Queen Elizabeth I of England was the one to outdo all her rivals by amassing the finest collection of pearls in all of Europe and the British Isles. As stated above, some came into her possession from Mary Queen of Scots and the crown jewels of Scotland. Others were inherited from her predecessor Mary Tudor. Still more filled her treasure chests from the crown jewels of Portugal, to those of Navarre and Burgundy. Motivated by a vain claim to purity and perfection, she was accustomed to wearing heavy strands of pearls and dazzling gowns embroidered with a treasure of 3000 pearls.
In the 1600’s, gemologists developed techniques and skills for cutting and faceting gemstones such as diamonds, making them as popular as pearls if not more. This, compounded by changes in the religious and political climate, as well as a decline in import of pearls from the New World, resulted in a decrease of excessive displays of pearls in Europe of the late 1600’s.
However, the extravagant use of freshwater pearls by the Byzantines was carried well into the eighteenth century by Russia, which was also under the influence of Western styles, particularly from the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725) through the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. Russian aristocracy and gentry wore pearl jewelry and embroidered their clothing with pearls. Russian noblewomen decorated their large headdresses known as kokoshniki with lace, pearls and other colorful gemstones.
In China, pearls became especially popular during the rule of the Manchu dynasty from 1644 to 1911. Like the royalty in other parts of the world, the imperial family and wealthy elite in China used large numbers of pearls to decorate their costumes and adorn their furnishings. Even though the emperor himself was supposed to only use freshwater pearls from the Manchurian northeastern China, imperial art of the period shows so many uncharacteristically large round pearls that it appears that some of the emperors’ pearls came from marine oysters off southern China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
With the discovery of new oyster beds in the Pacific Ocean and a revival of pearl fishing in Central America in the early 1800’s, the fascination for pearls was renewed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; not only in Europe, Russia and China, but also in the United States. Nevertheless, the world's finest collections of pearls typically came from the Black-lipped Pearl Oyster and belonged to the royal families of Persia, India and Ceylon.
By the mid-1800’s, seed pearls imported from India and China had become the pearls of choice all across Western continents. Jewelers customarily threaded seed pearls with silk or white horsehair, creating a lace effect. Viewed as a symbol of purity and gentility, these were regarded as the most suitable wedding presents.
One of the largest saltwater pearls is the Hope Pearl, first acquired in the 19th century by Henry Philip Hope, This substantial two-inch long pearl which is still in existence, boasts between 3 1/4 and 4 1/2 inches in circumference. Up until now pearls had been the exclusive privilege of the upper classes. But the end of the 19th Century and the turn of the 20thCentury marked a record peak in popular demand for natural pearls. The new industrial era generated a growing middle class in both Europe and United States, producing rivalry between the nouveau riche and old aristocracy for ostentatious wealth and ornate style. Due to the bourgeoisie’s increasing purchasing power and growing contempt for gaudy flashy jewellery, pearls commanded more respect for their tantalizing air of elegance, grace and dignified appearance. Pearl garlands and wreaths, buttons and bows, ornamental drapery and decorative tassels became favorite jewelry designs for monarchs and sovereigns from Britain and France to Russia, and amongst American society figures. Pearls were also habitually used for complementing and harmonizing with other gemstones such as rubies, emeralds, sapphires and diamonds.
As the elite strived to outdo each other to attain the largest and most alluring jewels, the value of natural pearls rose to unparalleled heights around 1910. A testimonial to this fact is in the famed trade between Jacques Cartier and Mae Morton Plant for a six-story Renaissance mansion on Fifth Avenue located on the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street in New York City. Mae Plant was the wife of New York Banker Morton Plant who got off to a lucky start in life by inheriting his father’s railroad fortune. In 1917, she was so keen on acquiring a two-strand salt water natural oriental pearl necklace consisting of 128 pearls, that she and her husband traded their Fifth Avenue mansion with the Cartier family for the pearls.
Then valued at $1,200,000, the mansion and the necklace were considered a fair exchange for equal value. But today, eighty nine years later, the value of each has changed very considerably. Now an official New York City landmark, the mansion remains Cartier’s premier American store to this day. As one of the most desirable pieces of commercial real estate in the world, the value of Cartier’s property is well in excess of $20,000,000, and the firm has already sold the air rights for a very considerable sum. In August 2001, Cartier’s legendary flagship was masterfully refurbished as a museum and a retail store. To underline the building’s historic significance and reinforce the idea of Cartier’s legacy, the refurbished mansion was restored to its original glory, but with a lighter, modern touch. The French architect designer Jean-Michel Wilmotte, who oversaw the restoration, also designed the new interior of the Louvre Museum’s Richelieu wing and the new street lamps, benches and traffic lights on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. His architectural genius included a permanent exhibition area on the second floor. A two-part exhibit titled “Cartier and New York: An Enduring Romance” installed until Nov. 9 of the same year, drew gasps of awe from its enthralled visitors. Meanwhile, fate was not nearly so kind to the value of Oriental pearls. As usual, Cartier seems to have obtained the better end of the deal since the same pearls were apparently re-sold in 1957, at the bottom of the natural pearl market, for $170,000. Before bemoaning the fate of Mr. Morton, however, rest assured that Morton Plant died the following year in his new Fifth Avenue mansion.
The Fall of the Natural Pearl:With such astonishing popularity of oriental pearls at its zenith, demand soon outgrew supply, resulting in indiscriminate over-fishing. The modern use of diving equipment for pearl fishing removed the constraints imposed by divers’ lungs. Unfortunately, the new technological equipment cleaned off the entire ocean floor, preventing the natural organic growth of younger pearls to maturity.
Over-exploitation of natural pearl beds was compounded by the flourishing oil industry in the Persian Gulf, heralding higher wages, more job security and fewer hazards than breath-hold diving for pearls, now substantially a phenomenon of the past. Regrettable accidental oil spills turned the once rich pearl beds of the Persian Gulf into ecological disaster areas. Heavy pollution depleted the only supply of the prized black-lipped pearl oyster in the region. Compounding these adversities was the economic setback caused by the great depression. The 1929 stock market crash in the United States devastated the already afflicted natural pearl market, reducing their prices essentially a 10th of their former value.
Up until that time mother-of-pearl shells from the South Seas, United States, Persian Gulf and India had been used to make lustrous iridescent buttons for export all over the world. The invention and widespread introduction of plastic buttons destroyed the secondary market for mother-of-pearl buttons and halted its chance found pearls. The break out of World War II not only disrupted world-wide trade but also demolished many pearl beds in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The pearl industry was facing an impenetrable predicament. What was to be done? The solution was found in the cultured pearl.
Though most people credit the Japanese for inventing cultured pearls at the turn of the twentieth century, it is noteworthy that the Chinese were the first to produce cultured half-pearls as far back as the 14th century. These veritable alchemists literally used lead as prime matter and allowed mother-nature to transform it into pearl. Having formed a small Buddha shape from lead, they introduced it as nucleus into the shell lining of a freshwater mussel. Returning the mussel into a lake or river, they left it for many months during which the Buddha shape would be covered by nacre, the same mother of pearl substance that forms a round pearl; except that the layers around the Buddha shaped leaden substance were half round rather than fully circular.
In 1748, French, American and Swedish scientists began studying how to aid pearl formation in a mussel or oyster. In 1893, a Japanese entrepreneur named Kokichi Mikimoto discovered the art of culturing pearls by introducing a tiny bead of mother-of-pearl into an oyster and placing it back into the water. To protect its flesh, the oyster begins to cover the irritant with nacre, the secreted substance that makes up a pearl. It is important to remember that after the initial human introduction of the nucleus into the oyster, the process of pearl formation remains completely organic, independent of man who has no control over whether or not they survive, nor their eventual size, shape or colour. Each pearl whether cultured or natural is truly unique.
It is recounted that Kokichi Mikimoto, born in 1858 to noodle and vegetable vendors, had a dream that every woman should have the opportunity to own a pearl necklace. This dream was half-realized when he obtained the first patent to produce half-pearls (or semi-round pearls) in 1896. Whereas Chinese pearls came mainly from freshwater lakes and rivers, Japanese pearls were cultivated near the coast in saltwater. However, it was not until 1907 that two Japanese researchers named Tatsuhei Mise and Tokichi Nishikawa, discovered independently from each other, the secret of round pearl cultivation by introducing a seed or a nucleus into a living oyster. They each applied for patenting their discovery. Upon learning of each other’s simultaneous patent applications, they signed the Mise-Nishikawa agreement – which formed the heart of new pearl culture technology. In 1908, Mikimoto also applied for a patent to produce round pearls. That is when he first became aware of the Mise-Nishikawa patented method and bought rights to use it.
In 1925, Basil Anderson, a Chemistry and Biology graduate from London’s Kings College, established the world’s first gemmological laboratory in London to identify natural from cultured pearls.
During WWII, the Japanese government permitted Mikimoto to amass large quantities of cultured pearls to enable him to flood the world with his substitute gems after the war. When cultured pearls first arrived at the European and American markets in the 1930’s, natural pearl dealers initially regarded them with contempt; as nothing but fake or imitation pearls. However, when a few French designers such as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, embraced cultivated pearls to create elegantly casual designs, it did not take long before some of the finest jewellers in the world recognised them for their unique individuality and colourful beauty.
With a change in fashion, interest in luxury items grew again in the postwar 1950’s; cultured pearls became necessary accessories for elegant women—a fashion that persists to this day. Pearls, whether natural or cultured, staged a comeback as symbols of affluence, grace and quality taste. Inspired by the broad range of colors, shapes and sizes of cultured pearls, artists and designers now create both sophisticated pearl jewelry and whimsical pearl-decorated objects. Whether with a single large pearl to create an air of elegant beauty, or a cluster of seed pearls to light up an apparel or object of art, pearls continue to captivate us with their inner glow and luminosity.
Thus, unusual world events drove natural pearls to unnatural highs and lows and opened the way for enthusiastic acceptance of their cultured counterparts. Remarkably, one of the first places to begin farming cultured pearls outside of Japan was near the Gulf of California in Mexico. Unfortunately, due to over-exploitation of natural pearl oyster banks, the Mexican government had to ban pearl fishing in the late 1940's. Be that as it may, with his exceptional business acumen and worldwide marketing skills, Mikimoto succeeded in producing almost 75% of international demand for cultured pearls, leaving Mise and Nishikawa’s names only for the history books. His expertise was also utilized by Tahitian pearl farmers to start their own cultured pearl enterprise.
Mikimoto’s daily consumption of two crushed pearls as a dietary supplement could only have aided his unusually long life. By the time of his death at age 97, Mikimoto had managed to rewrite thousands of years of pearl history within a brief span of less than 50 years and achieve his long-term dream of making pearls so accessible that every woman could benefit from them. Whereas historically natural pearls had been the exclusive possessions of royalty and aristocracy as the only ones who could afford the high price, cultured pearls have become more readily accessible and affordable for most everyone. Whereas previously pearl divers had to jeopardize their lives to hunt for the elusive, naturally formed pearls, pearl farmers today are able to cultivate thousands of pearls, much in the same way as a wheat farmer grows his crop. And so, pearl lovers throughout the world could take advantage of the joys of wearing these magnificent creations of the Goddess of the Seas. Today, pearls are more popular than ever before, but they are still as exquisitely glamorous and symbolically valuable as ever. Indeed, we are living in a new Great Age of Pearls.
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