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The History of Pearls

The pearl’s allure has endured throughout history. Long before the development of pearl culturing, molluscs were producing natural pearls on their own. One of the most extraordinary of them was the Hope Pearl. It’s the largest know natural pearl, weighing 1800 grains (3oz). At its widest point, its circumference is 4.5 inches. It resided in a private collection in the 1800s, capped with a crown of red enamelled gold set with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. It surfaced again in 1974, when it was offered for sale at $200,000.

Most natural pearls are much smaller than the Hope. But this doesn’t take away from the biological miracle of pearl formation. Today, cultured pearls outshine their natural counterparts in both availability and marketability. But it was the mystique of natural pearls that inspired the development of pearl culturing. 

A thousand years before the birth of Christ, ancient civilizations along the Nile fashioned iridescent mother-of-pearl into simple ornaments. But ancient cultures farther east discovered thee gem within the shell: the product of the massive oyster beds that had been quietly flourishing in the waters of the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean for millions of years. 

Cultures of the Middle East and Asia glorified the pearl into a symbol of wealth, status, and virtue. From 599 to 300 BC, the powerful Persian Empire celebrated its wealth by draping its rulers with pearl-studded robes and ornaments. Their prominent display meant that Persia’s natural pearls, and the value humans placed on them, could not stay hidden from the outside world for long. 

The people of ancient China, Japan, and the Pacific Islands had been harvesting  natural pearls of their own. China fished its rivers and lakes, while Japan and the Pacific Islands found pearls in the seas lapping their coast-lines. When Alexander the Great’s east-west trade routes reached the Orient, its people, already rich in native pearl treasure, saw foreign pearls for the first time. 

By 200 BC, east-west traders had established the great silk roads to and from China. China satisfied the growing demand for Chinese silk, jade, and other products, and used its increased prosperity to buy Indian and Persian pearls. For centuries, Chinese courts sagged under the weight of pearl ornaments. 

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire of the first century BC was no stranger to excess. As Rome’s power grew, so did its unquenchable thirst for the pearls cherished by the Egyptian and Greek civilizations they conquered.

When countries fell to Rome, their treasures also went to the Romans. Roman lust for pearls was even a factor in conquering other areas. Julius Caesar may have targeted Britain for invasion because he suspected that region of having natural pearl resources.

In the sixth century, the Byzantine cit of Constantinople replaced Rome as a cultural capital. It also inherited the Roman Empire’s wealth in the Persian Gulf. Byzantine Christians adopted pearls as symbols of religious faith and purity, and liberally decorated their churches’ religious articles with the natural gem. 

European royalty became as obsessed with the gem as their Perisian and Roan counterparts had been centuries before. During the Renaissance, which lasted from the 1300s to the 1600s, European rulers acquired pearls hungrily, showing off their lavish collections at public functions. Thee gowns and hair of England’s Queen Elizabeth I were nearly obscured by mounds of pearls to impress rivals and dazzle those of lesser status.

In the 1860s, excited Europeans learned of untouched pearl sources in the warm southern waters off Australia. Employing Australian aborigines as divers, the British profited from the new supply of mother-of-pearl shell, which they used for buttons and inlay work. The naturally occurring pearls were a lucrative bonus.

Several discoveries of high quality natural pearls in North American rivers set off local pearl rushes in New Jersey and Ohio river towns. One of the most famous discoveries was a large freshwater natural pearl discovered in 1857. The treasure eventually found its way to the collection of France’s Empress Eugenie.

Natural Pearls Today

Natural pearls today are no longer abundant in the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers. However, some natural pearls centuries old have survived decay and still shine in museum display cases or the jewelry collections of people who are lucky enough to own them.

New natural pearls are rare. Fine quality natural pearls are even more so. These treasures are in demand among antique dealers who need natural pearls to replace deteriorated or cracked pearls in estate jewelry items.  

The Introduction of Cultured Pearls 

Pearls symbolized perfection to people in ancient civilizations partly because the gem emerged complete and ready to use from the shell, needing no faceting or carving. By the 1890s, however, as natural pearl resources all but disappeared, experiments with culturing by human intervention got underway in earnest. 

Three Japanese men responded to the public’s desire for pearls in a time when that desire was becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy. Tokichi Nishikawa, Tatsuhei Mise, and Kokichi Mikimoto each contributed to the development of modern pearl culturing techniques. 

Mikimoto combined his culturing efforts with shrewd business sense, and achieved international success. By the early 1920s, he was marketing his cultured product worldwide. There was some controversy, including a legal dispute, about the authenticity of cultured pearls in relation to their natural counterparts. But eventually the public accepted cultured pearls. More people were able to afford lovely strands of a gem that looked a lot like those worn by the royalty of days past. 

During the 1920s, pearls were especially popular among newly rich Americans like the Morgans, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies, who had made their fortunes during the industrial revolution. The pearl, historically associated to boost their social status. Great Britain’s Princess Alexandra, daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria, was fond of pearls, and her tastes influenced rich Americans anxious to imitate her.



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