History of Pearls
Throughout history, pearls have mesmerized us with its simple sublime beauty. From China, Japan, Russia, and India pearls coveted such high regard that they were once restricted only to royalty. Unlike other precious gems, their natural beauty and luster does not need human intervention. Pearls are beautiful just as they are because they do not need to be cut or polished. Their natural beauty is part of their timeless appeal, and women from Cleopatra to Marilyn Monroe have loved pearls and pearl jewelry.
The Persian Gulf, Bahrain, was the largest resource of pearls because the sweet and salt waters in their area produced lustrous pearls. In the 1930s, this industry ended when the discovery of oil in that area polluted the waters and thus changed the focus of trade from pearls to oil. Today, Japan, Australia, French Polynesia, Micronesian Islands, and parts of the United States are sources of pearls, but China remains the major source of pearls in the commercial world.
In The Book of the Pearl, America’s foremost gemologist George Frederick Kunz believed that an ancient tribe in India discovered pearls while opening an oyster. How ironic that such a luxurious item can be found inside a shellfish. Naturally formed pearls are rare and expensive with only 1 out of 40 pearls oysters being able to form the pearl. Take into consideration that a small percentage of that 1 out of 40 can form pearls it is understandable why natural forming pearls are expensive. Before pearls were able to be cultured, pearls were so rare that in 1692 the Duke of Saxony drafted a law prohibiting commoners from wearing pearls because he wanted to restrict their use to nobility. However, with the advent of cultured pearls, this precious gem has become more accessible and affordable. Today, women can enjoy wearing pearl jewelry much like the royalty of the past.
Pearls have a rich history. They were once the most precious and expensive of all precious stones. They have been connected to religious and secular life and they were sought after by nobility, traded by business men, eaten by those who believed in their medicinal powers, and they were written about in the bible. The bible makes numerous references to pearls. For instance, the entrance to heaven is known as “the Pearly Gates.” Pearls symbolized such purity that in the Middle Ages an epic poem written by an anonymous writer, known only as the “Pearl poet” wrote an epic poem titled “Pearl.” The poem describes the physical and spiritual purity of the soul through various references to the purity of the pearl. Today, pearls still symbolize the utmost of feminine beauty. However, history shows that pearls were not restricted to women.
In the past, men sought pearls for their ostensible powers and value. In the Dark Ages, knights wore pearls when they went into battle because pearls were believed to possess a magic that would protect the wearer from harm. It was believed that Roman general, Vitellius, sold a single pearl belonging to his mother to finance his military campaign. Calligula was known to have worn slippers encrusted with pearls, and his escalating insanity compelled him to adorn his horse with a string of pearls. The King of Malabar owned a rosary made of pearls and rubies.
Of course, women have been the premiere procurers of pearls and pearl jewelry. Legend has it that Cleopatra gave her infamous dinner proving to Marc Antony the unrivaled richness of Egypt by drink a glass of wine with one of her pearl earrings (the largest in history) swimming inside the glass of wine. Marc Antony finally conceded defeat and agreed that indeed Egypt’s richness is unrivalled. Today, Cleopatra’s pearl is worth approximately $13.5 million dollars. What an expensive dinner indeed! Julius Caesar presented Brutus’ mother, Servilla, with a pearl that was one third the cost of Cleopatra’s pearl earrings. The pearl necklace that Joe DiMaggio gave to then wife Marilyn Monroe was displayed in the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Why do pearls continue to mesmerize us? Perhaps it’s because of their simplicity. A single round pearl speaks for itself when it comes to the epitome of feminine beauty. The spherical perfection, color and luster of pearls appeals to all of us. Women want them, and men want to buy them for women. It is the perfect jewel, the perfect gift, and the symbol of perfect femininity throughout the ages and it will continue to do so because simple beauty never goes out of style.