Discover the History of Pearls
The pearl is the oldest gem known to man. For centuries, it has been a symbol of purity, wisdom, beauty and wealth.
The main beauty of pearls lies in the fact that they glow, therefore reflecting their beauty on the wearer. This has been recognised since the beginning of civilisation and their story is full of symbolism and romance.
Take a look at the highlights of their history, from the first recorded pearls in 307 BC to the most recent discovery in 1967…
Pearls as a timeless symbol of style
Down the centuries, pearls have played a central role in style and refinement. They have been favoured by many powerful women and style leaders, such as:
- Mary Tudor
- Queen Elizabeth I
- Mary Queen of Scots
- The French Empress Eugenie
- Catherine the Great of Russia
- Queen Mary
- Queen Victoria
- Princess Alexandra
- Coco Chanel
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Audrey Hepburn
- Marilyn Monroe
- Jacqui Kennedy
And more recently:
- The late Princess Diana
- Caroline of Monaco
- Mrs Michelle Obama
- Kristin Scott Thomas
- Anna Wintour
- Emilia Fox
Ancient Pearl Beds
The oldest pearl beds recorded are in the Persian gulf (Ptolemy 307 BC) and Ceylon, visited in 1294 by Marco Polo, who described at length the dangers involved in pearl fishing.
Pearls were used as a measure of wealth in the Roman era. Julius Caesar’s love of pearls is said to have been a contributing factor to his invasion of England in 55BC. Scottish pearls were well known to the Romans as some of the finest available, alongside Oriental pearls from the Persian Gulf and Ceylon. It’s even documented that Pliny the Elder dubbed pearls as “the richest merchandise of all”.
Roman women had a consuming passion to wear exceptionally fine pearls as earrings. They preferred pear shaped pearls, and as each pearl could be worth a fortune, they would wear a whole inheritance in each ear, posing a threat to their husbands’ solvency. Because of this craze for pearls, Caesar was petitioned to decree that only women of the highest rank should be allowed to wear pearls. At one stage, the Roman General Vitellius paid for an entire military campaign using the funds from the sale of one pearl from his mother’s earrings.
This is just one of many ancient stories which demonstrate the extravagant value of precious pearls…
Cleopatra & Mark Anthony
Cleopatra possessed two magnificent pear-shaped pearls, which she wore as earrings. In her bid to demonstrate that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth which put it beyond conquest, Cleopatra wagered Mark Anthony that she would consume the entire wealth of a country in a single meal and is reputed to have dissolved one of these precious pearls in the wine with which she toasted his health. Upon Cleopatra’s death, the remaining pearl was taken to Rome, halved and placed on the earlobes of the Statue of Venus in the Pantheon. Roman statues often had pierced earlobes to enable earrings to be placed on them.
Theodora from Courtesan to Empress in pearls
Theodora was the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who ruled Constantinople in the 6th century. It’s said she was the daughter of a bear trainer in Constantinople, who was taken to the east by an army captain and abandoned while still very young.
She made her way back to Constantinople on her own and soon after her arrival met Emperor Justinian, who fell deeply in love and married her. Together they ruled over a centre of great art, intellect, power and wealth.
Theodora loved pearls and wore as many as she could. She first took to wearing many of them as long earrings. When the weight became too much for her earlobes, she wore a diadem with long strands of pearls hanging from each side to which she could add as many pearls as she liked. The beauty of Theodora can be seen in the mosaics of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna.
Pearls as an aphrodisiac
After the Roman era, the Middle Ages was a time when men started investigating the material composition of the world around them. A wonder at the time was how the pearl, such a beautiful, rare and mysterious gem, could be formed in such ugly surroundings (an unsightly oyster). The solution to this, as explained by the alchemists, was the belief that when a single teardrop from an angel fell from the heavens and found the heart of an open oyster, a pearl was born. From these roots arose the erroneous belief that pearls are for tears.
In the Middle Ages, pearls were considered a potent tonic and aphrodisiac. This fact is not surprising, as pearls are composed of calcium carbonate which when dissolved in lemon juice becomes a strong potion. This cure-all remedy was reputed to resuscitate the dead and was used for purifying blood, curing heart trouble, impotence, timidity, melancholia, madness and fever – as Lorenzo de Medici found out when he was cured of fever with this particular brew.
To this day in China, lower quality pearls and their shells are ground up for use as an aphrodisiac, as ground fertiliser and for pharmaceutical and cosmetic use.
The first cultured pearls in the 1300s
The first cultured pearls (in other words, initiated by man) were produced by the Chinese in the 14th century. These were in fact half pearls made with small Buddha shapes formed out of lead and introduced, as the nucleus, into the shell lining of a freshwater mussel. The mussel was returned to the water in a lake or pond and left for many months. The mother of pearl substance that covered these Buddha shapes was nacre, the same type of nacre that forms a round pearl, except that the layers were half round instead of fully circular.
Just a century later, Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that pearls rendered all who wear them virtuous and true.
Not long after, Christopher Columbus dubbed America the ‘land of pearls’ upon discovery. Before large scale mining for silver and gold began to take place in 1530, the principal export from America was pearls, destined mainly for Spain, they can be seen in many Spanish cathedrals and churches whose pearl encrusted altars and other ornaments came from the Central American natural pearl beds.
The Peregrina – from the Tudors to Elizabeth Taylor
One of the most famous pearls is undoubtedly the Peregrina. It’s travelled through the centuries, keeping its allure and bestowing its beauty upon several stylish women. Roughly the size of a pigeon’s egg, the Peregrina pearl was found in the Americas by a slave, who it’s said was given his freedom while his owner received a large farm and was given the post of mayor.
The Peregrina became the most highly regarded jewel of the 16th century and was then given by Phillip II of Spain to Mary Tudor as a wedding gift. On her death it returned to Spain and appears again in several Spanish court portraits.
Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I, took the Peregrina to France. It then went to Prince Louis Napoleon who sold it to the marquis of Abercorn in 1837. The marquis’ son drilled the Peregrina and recorded its exact weight, 10.192 grams.
When Elizabeth Taylor bought a pearl reputed to be the Peregrina for $37,000 in 1969, its authenticity was challenged. However, due to the exact record of its weight being kept, experts were able to confirm that it was indeed the famous pearl. ‘La Peregrina’ was eventually auctioned by Christie’s Auction House and sold for 10 million dollars plus saleroom fees – not a bad return.
The first imitation ‘pearls’
It was also around the 16th century that the skilful manufacture of Venetian iridescent glass beads came into fashion. These were the first imitation pearls and their large-scale production severely affected the pearl fishing enterprise in America.
These glass beads were filled with wax and cost one penny a piece – not necessarily cheap at the time, but much more affordable than natural pearls. It’s said that Elizabeth I wore quite a few of them alongside her priceless collection of natural pearls – quite vast in itself.
Some of the pearls belonging to Elizabeth I came from her predecessor Mary Tudor, others from the crown jewels of Navarre, Portugal, Burgundy and Scotland. The finest pearls in Europe came into her possession when Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded, leaving an empty treasury. Her jewels were sold to Elizabeth I despite strong contest from other heads of state like Catherine de Medici.
These valuable gems, called the Hanoverian Pearls, consisted of 6 long rows and 25 loose pearls, some as big as nutmegs. They had been a wedding present to Mary Queen of Scots from her husband the Dauphin of France, whose mother Catherine de Medici had been given them by her uncle Pope Clement VII on her wedding day.
Developing imitation ‘pearls’
Glass beads weren’t the only imitation pearls to have been developed. In the 17th century, a Frenchman called Jacquin developed the single most important development in imitation pearls which is still used today.
He came upon this invention when observing his housekeeper cleaning a fish in a basin of water. Jacquin noticed that the fish slime rising to the surface had mother of pearl reflections. He then filtered it and mixed it with varnish. This mixture of fish slime and lacquer was called ‘essence of Orient’.
He poured it on the inside surface of a hollow glass bead, which he then filled with wax to produce imitation pearls. ‘Essence of Orient’ is still used today by large imitation pearl manufacturers. Nowadays, they coat alabaster beads in this substance and use the slime from salmon, chad and herring. Modern technology has also brought about a cheaper method of producing imitation pearls, by coating plastic beads in acrylic paint.
When considering imitations, it’s important to bear in mind that many of the natural pearls were found by chance, as the shells of many pearl producing oysters and mussels were used to make mother of pearl buttons and ornaments. Indeed, the Tahitian pearl Pinctada Margaritifera oyster shell was in such high demand due to the beautiful iridescence of its surface that it was almost totally exhausted by the end of the 19th century
Empress Eugenie the 2nd greatest “pearlaholic”
Two centuries on from the first ‘pearlaholic’ Elizabeth I, came Empress Eugenie, consort to Napoleon III. Arguably the most stylish and trend setting woman of her time, the Empress has a well-documented love of pearls. In particular, she owned a beautiful strand of natural Tahitian pearls seen in one of her portraits, the famous Peregrina pearl for a brief period, and even the “Queen Pearl” – a record-setting natural freshwater pearl which was named after her.
The “Queen Pearl” weighed 4.65 grams and had originally been found by a carpenter, Mr Jacob Quackenbush, in New Jersey. He sold it for $1,500 to Charles Tiffany who sent it to a Paris gem dealer where Empress Eugenie bought it for an undisclosed sum.
Cartier does the swap of the century
The greatest peak in popularity of the natural pearl was reached at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. With increasing wealth and a demand for rich rather than gaudy or showy jewellery, there was no gem that commanded itself as highly as the pearl. Noted for never being obtrusive and always having a refining effect, pearls were used to harmonise diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other coloured semi-precious stones.
In 1917, Cartier acquired their New York premises when they sold a double row of natural saltwater pearls, then valued at over 1 million dollars, to a lady in exchange for her town house. This house is still the main Cartier premises in New York. The same pearls were re-sold in 1957, at the bottom of the natural pearl market, for $170,000.
With the popularity of natural pearls at such a peak, demand outgrew supply and the depletion of pearl beds around the world began in earnest as fishermen used diving equipment; no longer constrained by the limited staying power of divers’ lungs. Dredging equipment was also used, which brought up every shell on the ocean bed including infant shells that couldn’t possibly contain a pearl.
The demise of the natural pearl started at the beginning of the 20th century, due to a number of factors:
- Pearl beds were being over exploited.
- Oil and its uses were discovered. Bahrain’s economy (completely based on pearls until 1925-30) switched to oil and the pearl beds were polluted
- The depression badly affected economies around the world.
- World War II broke out and not only disrupted worldwide trade but also destroyed many pearl beds in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean.
- During WWII, Mikimoto was allowed by the Japanese government to stockpile cultured pearls ready to take the world by storm after the war.
- Plastics were invented and widely used for buttons – this halted the mother of pearl button industry and its chance-found pearls.
The cultured pearl as we know it is born
The Chinese had cultured semi-circular pearls since the 14th century. Later, French, American and Swedish scientists, notably the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus in 1748, had been studying how to aid pearl formation in a mussel or oyster. However, it was not until 1907 that two Japanese researchers Mr Mise and Mr Nishikawa discovered the technique of round pearl cultivation.
Considering the pivotal role of the Japanese in the history of the pearl and its evolution, it is surprising to read that in 1670 the traveller Taverner wrote that the Japanese people didn’t hold pearls in high esteem despite fine pearls being obtainable along the coastline. Half a century later, the Japanese discovered the esteem in which the Chinese held pearls – and in 1727 Kaempfer recorded that the finest pearls found were those from the Akoya oyster in Japan, not unlike the Persian pearl oysters.
Fast forward to 1907 and Tatsuhei Mise & Tokichi Nishikawa discovered the secret of seeding a nucleus into a living oyster. Independently yet simultaneously, they each applied to patent aspects central to pearl production. Upon seeing each other’s patent applications, it was clear they had both reached the same conclusion, so they signed the Mise-Nishikawa agreement – to this day the heart of pearl culture technology.
A year later in 1908, Mikimoto (who had already been granted a patent in 1896 to produce half pearls) applied for a patent to produce full pearls. When he became aware of the Mise-Nishikawa patented method, Mikimoto altered his own patent so as not to invalidate it and bought the rights to use the Mise-Nishikawa method. Mikimoto then began an unprecedented expansion of cultured pearls and left Mise and Nishikawa’s names for the history books.
Mikimoto turns the pearl market on its head
Born in 1958, Kokichi Mikimoto was the son of noodle and vegetable vendors. He had a dream that every woman should have the opportunity to own a pearl necklace. This dream inspired him to change the pearl industry single handed within a few decades.
When Mikimoto began his crusade, cultured pearls were viewed as ‘fake natural’ pearls. But within a few years, the best jewellers in the world recognised them for their individuality and beauty. It is important to remember that cultured pearls, although aided to start their existence, are completely independent and man has no control over their eventual size, shape, colour or even whether they survive. Each pearl whether cultured or natural is truly individual.
At one point, Mikimoto produced 75% of the world’s demand for cultured pearls. When he died at the age of 97, he had almost achieved his dream – pearls were more accessible than ever before. A strand of Mikimoto pearls that cost $100 at the time was remarkably similar to a natural pearl strand worth half a million dollars, to the untrained eye.
Owing to the impact that the new cultured Japanese pearls were having, the first gemmological laboratory in the world was established in London in early 1925. It was launched by Basil Anderson – a Chemistry and Biology graduate from King’s College London – primarily to identify natural and cultured pearls and other gems.
Small seeds can grow huge harvests
The next major milestone for pearls? The first Biwa Freshwater cultured pearl. Emboldened by the success that oyster cultured pearls were having, Masayo Fusia decided to use the same method on a mussel at Lake Biwa, Japan, in 1928.
At first, Fusia found that there was a huge mortality rate among the mussels. Due to the many twists of their intestine, it was almost impossible not to damage the mollusc when implanting the nucleus. Whether by design or accident, Fusia found that only the piece of mantle used in seeding the mussel was necessary to start the pearl formation process – the nucleus was redundant.
When cultured pearls emerged from Lake Biwa in natural colours never seen before, like peach, pink, orange, mauve and heather, in the 1930s, they were an instant success and were very much sought after. This technical knowhow was taken to China, and in only half a century the Chinese achieved Mikimoto’s dream – that every woman should be able to afford a pearl necklace. The Chinese dominate the freshwater production market and produce a variety of pearl qualities at varying price points.
Modern pearl production
By the end of the 1970s, the water in Lake Biwa began to show signs of pollution due to septic tanks from the newly created holiday resorts around the lake, and herbicides used by neighbouring farmers. A few pearl experts took the technology to China and initiated the now immense Chinese freshwater pearl industry.
Lake Biwa was declared biologically dead in 1984. China has now taken over the production of freshwater pearls for the world market and is increasingly developing a better pearl to equal the once prized Biwa pearl.
While the cultured freshwater pearl industry is predominantly based in China, cultured pearls themselves can come from locations across the globe. The most recently discovered famous pearl is the Abernethy pearl. It is a perfectly round, white Scottish Natural Freshwater pearl weighing 2.225 grams, found in the backwater of the river Tay in 1967 by Bill Abernethy. After discovering the pearl, he sold it to Cairncross Jewellers in Perth, where it can be seen on request.
Elsewhere, the pearl industry is based in a variety of locations depending on the type of cultured pearls:
- South Sea Pearls – Australia, Indonesia & Philippines
- Black South Sea Pearls (also known as Tahitian Pearls) – French Polynesia & Mexico
- Rainbow Lipped Oyster Pearls – Mexico
- Akoya Pearls – Japan, Vietnam & China
- Freshwater Pearls – China
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