Early History Treasured and collected by women and men alike for more than 4000 years, pearls are one of the world’s oldest gems. In all likelihood, the first pearl was probably discovered many thousands of years ago by people searching the oceans for food. Since then, pearls have starred in romance, wars, religion and even wagers and the rich history of pearls is full of symbolism across many different cultures and regions.
Ancient Rome In ancient Rome pearls were a highly prized accessory, the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing. So much so that only persons above a certain rank were allowed to wear pearls, formalized in law by Julius Caesar who enacted the first legislation restricting who could wear pearls. This only caused Rome’s pearl craze to continue growing, reaching a zenith during the first century B.C. So insatiable was the Romans thirst for pearls that military campaigns were launched for the sole purpose to acquire this precious commodity.
Ancient Rome is also the setting of one of the most famous banquets in history and sums up the value Romans attached to pearls. The incident has been described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his book “Natural History”. Although not without controversy, most historians today agree that the incident described is factual. The story describes how Cleopatra the Egyptian queen hosted a banquet for the Roman leader Marc Antony, and wagered she could give the most expensive dinner in history.
The primary purpose of the dinner was to convince Rome that Egypt possessed a rich heritage and wealth that put it above conquest. At the dinner, Antony was taken aback when Cleopatra had an empty plate and a vessel of sour wine (vinegar) placed in front of her. Cleopatra then dropped one pearl from her large pearl earrings into the vessel, which dissolved in the highly acidic wine and won the wager. According to Pliny the pearl was worth 10 million sesterces or thousands of pounds of gold.
Ancient China Chinese historical records reference pearls as far back as 2300 B.C., one of the earliest known mentions of the gem. The Chinese considered pearls as prized possessions and often gifted them to royalty. Pearls became especially popular in China during the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911. The imperial family and wealthy elite used large numbers of pearls to enhance costumes and furnishings. In theory, the emperor himself was supposed to use pearls only from freshwater mussels in Manchuria, north-eastern China, the dynasty's homeland. But imperial art of the period shows so many big round pearls that at least some probably came from marine pearl oysters in waters off southern China, Vietnam and perhaps the Philippines.
Ancient India India has had a long and glorious history with pearls. The Rig-Veda one of the oldest Vedas (sacred texts) has the first mention of pearls, approximately 3000 years ago. Around 2,500 years ago, the Atharva-Veda mentions an amulet made of pearls and used as a talisman. The ancient epic poem, the Ramayana, describes a necklace made with 27 pearls. Other texts tell the story of how the Hindu god Krishna was the first to discover pearls.
The Mughal period in India from the 16th to 19th centuries was also significant in the context of pearls. The Maharajahs were avid collectors of pearls, as keen be seen in their portraits. Many of them were draped in some of the finest pearls of the time, with some of their necklaces having as many as 9 strands.
The Maharajah of Baroda in particular stood out for his legendary pearl collection. Some highlights include the “Baroda Pearls” a magnificent two strand natural pearl necklace of 68 graduated pearls up to 16 mm in size and the “Pearl Carpet of Baroda” a 5 foot 8 inch by 8 foot 8 inch carpet made up of more than 1 million natural pearls. You get a sense for their rarity and value, when you look at the prices they fetched at recent auctions. The “Baroda Pearls” went for more than 7 million US dollars in 2007, while the “Pearl Carpet” fetched 5.5 million US dollars in 2009.
Ancient Greece Well-known for their contributions to art and philosophy, the ancient Greeks held pearls in the highest regard more than 2500 years ago. Believing the essence of love and beauty lay in a pearl’s soul, they often used them at weddings. Persia was the major source for many of Greece’s pearls. Homer describes Juno's pearl earrings: "In three bright drops, her glittering gems suspended from her ears". A beautiful Greek necklace of pearls and gold, which dates from about 2,300 years ago, was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of New York 100 years ago. It is one of the oldest known pieces in the world, and may still be owned by the museum.
Persian Gulf Historically, one of the most significant sources of natural pearls, the warm waters of the Persian Gulf were rich with natural oyster beds. Ancient Arab legend states that pearls were formed when dewdrops filled with moonlight fell into the ocean and were swallowed by oysters. The Quran describes pearls as one of the greatest treasures provided in paradise.
Until well into the 20th century, pearls and pearl diving was the main-stay of the economy of the Persian Gulf. Diving for pearls with no safety equipment or training was an arduous and risky proposition, but the reward was plentiful and provided a healthy income for the pearl divers.
Modern History As Renaissance Europe emerged, a new age dawned for pearls. Pearls became the favorite fashion luxury of the emerging royalty and elite classes. The Persian Gulf remained the most important source, until the discovery of the New World, when pearls flooded in from the oyster beds off the coasts of present day Venezuela, Panama and the Gulf of California.
European royalty’s fascination with the pearls knew no bounds, with pearls used in jewelry, crowns, art and even clothes. While all the royal and noble houses of Europe pursued pearls, Queen Elizabeth I of England stood out. She amassed an enviable collection of pearls that rivaled the most lavish collections of the time. Known to have worn large ropes of pearls, Queen Elizabeth I was a true pearl connoisseur.
The 19th century witnessed the zenith of the trade in natural pearls. The immense popularity and allure of pearls had broadened from royalty to the upper and middle classes, leading to an unprecedented demand for pearls. Sadly, this was not sustainable and by the end of the 19th century most known sources of natural pearls had been discovered. This led to the eventual decline of the natural pearl trade and if it were not for events in Japan, the pearl industry would have been very different today.
The emergence of cultured pearls has again given women the chance to wear a gem that effortlessly expresses elegance, sophistication and feminism. The modern age is full of illustrious women who have made pearls their fashion accessory of choice, fashion icon Coco Chanel, Princess Diana of Wales and Hollywood star Audrey Hepburn, to name but a few.