Pearl Origins: Diving Deep Inside the History of Pearls

Pearls in shell. History of pearls

The Beauty of Pearl Jewelry – Why They Have Been Coveted For Centuries

Pearls were the first gemstone known to man and, for centuries, could not be replicated. Consequently, they were highly prized gemstones. Here we look at the history of pearls and the development of the different types of pearls.

Pearls have been seen worn by nobility and the most important on statues and illustrations from the earliest times. They are still loved today and, with the rise of cultured pearls, are worn by millions of women (and, more recently, men) around the world. 

These lustrous gems have an iridescence like no other gemstone and, have a wonderful way of lighting up the skin. For many centuries, natural saltwater pearls could not be imitated and, consequently, became highly revered and sought after.

Even before the discovery of cultured pearls, the pearl industry was a booming market. You can still find, albeit rarely, antique pearl necklaces and other pearl jewelry in the second-hand market now.

In this article we look at this incredible gemstone, it’s history and why it’s still one of the most important gemstones. 

Pearl seed necklace

A Brief History of Pearls

Pearl Jewelry From Ancient Eygpt to the Modern Day

Matthew 13: 45-46
““Or, God’s kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for exquisite pearls.

 Finding one that is flawless, he immediately sells everything and buys it”.

The Muslim describes heaven as being laden with pearls and anyone entering heaven is adorned by luminous pearls. 

The Greek Goddess of love, beauty and fertility, Aphrodite (known as Venus in Roman mythology) was born of the sea from which she rose, beautifully formed in a shell. 

Julius Ceasar famously declared a law that only aristocrats were permitted to wear pearls within the border’s of Rome. He was believed to have invaded Great Britain in the hope of finding pearls.

During Roman times, as pearls signified wealth and power, many husbands were made bankrupt by their wives’ demands for owning and wearing pearls. It was the ultimate status symbol.

In times past, unlike gemstones, pearls just could not be replicated and so being seen wearing pearls signified a certain standing and wealth in society.

The history of pearls has to include the fact that many members of royal dynasties were pictured dripping in pearls and other gemstones sending out the message that wealth were no object and that they were a force to be reckoned with. Painting of nobility dripping in pearls – the so-called pearl age – adorn many museums and stately homes.

Armada Portrait Elizabeth I Queens House

Royal Museums Greenwich, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. {{PD-US-expired}}

Life and Death

As pearls were associated with life, in Budddhist and Taoist traditions they were, and still are, placed in the mouths of the dead to help transport the deceased loved one in the afterlife. This is believed to help “light the way” to the afterlife (from the pearls wonderful luster and iridescence) and also to help bribe their way, if needed, into the next world.  

The Beauty of Pearls

Pearls are exquisitely beautiful and display a luster or luminsecence, a sheen that tends to radiate from within. Unless other gemstones which needs polishing or cutting to allow the light to shine through the stone, pearls’ beauty comes from within, which acts as a wonderful metaphor for the way women of all ages are drawn to these stunning gemstones.

Pearl as a Birthstone

The pearl is the birthstone for June and is associated with the Gemini zodiac sign. In 1912 the National Association of Jewellers of America decided to standarize the 12 Birthstone months. The history of pearls had an added twist when Pearl became one of the birthstones for June.

A Delicate Pearl

Whilst you can wear pearls every day, they are exceptionally soft gemstones measuring just 2.5 on the Moh’s Hardness scale. This means that you need to take good care of pearls to keep them looking good and ensure they last for many years.

The Meaning of Pearls

Pearls are said to represent wisdom through experience. Pearls represent purity and innocence, as well as attracting good luck and abundance.

Coming from the water, they represent calm emotions and the wisdom of nature as well as the beauty of the oceans – including the Goddess of Love, Venus, who came from the ocean.

Chinese culture believed that pearls offered protection from misfortune.

Chlobo Pearl and silver bracelet

Questions About Pearls

What Are Pearls?

Pearls were the earliest gemstones known to man. They came from the sea and were polished and formed by nature. A pearl is the only gemstone formed by a living creature. 

How Are Pearls Formed?

A pearl starts when an irritant – which could be a grain of sand, a piece of grit or even a worm – finds its way into a mollusc’s shell. A mollusc has a soft body and hence lives inside a shell as protection. A “foreign body” which has worked its way into the shell will act as an irritant, therefore the mollusc will lay down layers of “nacre” (a calcium carbonate substance made of aragonite and conchiolin) around the irritant as a protection. 

These layers build, layer over layer around the irritant. This becomes the pearl’s lustre and makes it one of the most coveted gemstones.

How Long Does it Take For a Pearl to Form?

It is said that pearls can take between 6 months to as long as four years to form. 

Why Are Natural Pearls Expensive? 

The exquisite beauty of pearls, and their difficulty to replicate in times past, meant pearl jewelry was incredibly expensive, even for a simple string of pearls design.

The length of time it takes for a pearl to form, as well as the danger for pearl divers – particularly in times past – of retrieving the shells from the sea, made farming pearls on a large scale both slow and expensive. Many lost their lives in diving for pearls. 

Farming to Extinction

Added to that, not all shells contained a pearl. These were effectively worthless to the pearl divers that were hunting for them and they were, sadly, often discarded after being opened. This led to a massive decline in oysters in those areas where they were farmed and a ban had to be put into place before they were made extinct.

Pearl production is, thankfully, controlled well these days.

The Different Types of Pearls – Freshwater, Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea Pearls

Akoya Pearls

Pearls from The Akoya oysters in Japan were noted for their exquisite color and shape and, for centuries these were the most desired pearls. They are often have a blue or blue-grey tinge.

Male human hand holding strands of cultured Japanese Akoya pearls: Source: DepositPhotos

Tahitian Pearls

Pearls from French Polynesian Islands were a beautiful color, often known as black pearls. They are formed in a black-lipped pearl oysters (the Pinctada Maxima oyster) and the saltwater pearls here are often darker in color, from black, aubergine, purple, peacock green to grey. Cultured pearls were introduced here, also, and Tahitian pearls now make up approximately 20% of the worldwide pearl market.

Tahitian Black pearls
Tahitian Black Pearl in Black Lipped Oyster Shell – Source: DepositPhotos

South Sea Pearls

The waters of Southern Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines produce white, silvery white or golden South Sea pearls. The finest South Sea pearls became revered the world over. The shells of oysters here contained beautifully coloured, iridescent mother of pearl inner lining which were used on buttons and other objects, favored by British colonists and, again, nearly over-farmed to extinction. 

Today South Sea pearl farms produce saltwater cultured pearls which help satisfy demand.

white south sea pearls
White South Sea Pearls – Source: DepositPhotos

The Origins of The Cultured Pearl

Cultured Freshwater Pearls

Culturing pearls – the process of forcing a mollusc like freshwater mussels to produce a pearl artificially – has been going on for hundreds of years, although this wasn’t done on a mass scale until the early 1900’s. These days an artificial irritant or wound is introduced into certain mollusc shells so that it will start laying down protective layers of nacre whilst laying in a bed of freshwater.

This is done on a mass scale on pearl farms to produce pearls and these known as are freshwater cultured pearls.

a cultured pearl in a shell
A cultured pearl straight out of the oyster shell in an open hand at Mooney Mooney, NSW, Australia. Source: DepositPhotos

In the past, the Chinese would even introduce a tiny shape or mould against the nacre lining of a mollusc shell in freshwater. The mollusc would then lay down layers of nacre over a period of months and even years and the result would be a mother-of-pearl lined shell in which a shape was nestled – a buddha was a popular shaped mold that they introduced. 

Nowadays cultured pearls have advanced so much that the color and luminescence can rival even the most revered natural pearls. Pearl farms are now present in almost all the original natural pearl harvesting areas of the world. 

Almost all pearl found in jewelry shop windows now are made using cultured, freshwater pearls. You can also have cultured saltwater pearls, cultured in the ocean.

Cultured saltwater pearl farm.
Pearl rows in the ocean, production and cultivation of pearls in the ocean. landscape and Pearl aqua farming cultivation Shima Japan: Source: DepositPhotos

Mikimoto Cultured Pearls

Kokichi Mikimoto, a Japanese jeweler, said he had a dream that every woman in the world could own a pearl necklace if she desired. Considering that, at the time, natural pearls were prohibitily expensive for all but the wealthiest. A necklace made of natural pearls back then would cost approximately half a million dollars, it was a hugely ambitious dream. 

In 1893 he succeeded, after many years experimenting, in creating a cultured pearl by inserting a wound or irritant into the Akoya pearl oyster. Mikimoto further developed the nucleating process to form perfectly round pearls. Consequently, these cultured Akoya pearls took off in a large way and he is now known as the father of cultured pearls. 

At the same time another Japanese man Tatsuhei Mise was trying to do the same. They both applied for patents in their process of culturing pearls at the same time. On reading each others patents, they decided to join forces and arrived at an agreement. 

Kokichi Mikimoto’s company, the Mikimoto Pearl Company, is still revered and is famous for their Akoya cultured pearls. The produce gem quality pearls and the quality of their appearance rivals natural pearls to the naked eye.

The Different Colors of Pearls – White, Black, Pink, and Everything In Between

The wonderful colors of the Tahitian pearl produced in the Tahitian French Polynesian Islands gave pearl lovers a taste for different colored pearls. White pearls, of course, suit seem to suit everyone – young or old. Peacock pearls – which range from a peacock green to purple and black – are often requested in jewelers now. As people start collecting pearls, they start experimenting with owning different colors.

In pearl farming, cultivated pearls are made in different colors by way of introducing colored minerals inside the pearl shell when the irritant is inserted.

After white and cream, black pearl is probably the next sought-after color.

Baroque Pearls

Baroque pearls aren’t perfectly round in shape. Whilst they can form in natural oyster beds as well as on cultivated pearl farms they were often cheaper than perfectly round pearls. This is not now the case as they have grown in popularity in recent years and many jewelry brands do a roaring trade in pearl jewelry made with baroque pearls.

Wedding Gemstones

The Ancient Greeks believed that pearls were wedding gemstones and said that they protected the bride from tears and brought the groom happiness and that pearls promoted harmony.

Pearl jewelry is probably the most favored wedding jewelry. They not only represent chastity, innocence and purity but also good luck and abundance. The colour of pearls compliment a brides wedding dress so beautifully and, being so flattering against the skin, they highlight the bride at her best.

With the rise in cultured pearls, this means they are accessible to everyone, from elaborate pearl necklaces to simple but elegant single pearl pendants or a timeless string of pearls.

Famous Lovers of Pearls

Many beautiful, powerful and famous women loved pearls and many women like to emulate this. Famous examples include Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth II and Elizabeth Taylor (who once owned the famous La Peregrina pearl – one of the largest evenly symmetrical pear-shaped pearls ever discovered).

Audrey Hepburn who exemplifies elegance, almost always wore pearls. 

Coco Chanel features in the history of pearls as she was famous for introducing pearls into her collections. She set new trends in her jewelry as well as her dress fashion by being the first to wear and use cultured pearls and even pearl-like beads. This was at a time that almost all pearl jewelry used natural pearls.

Coco Chanel in Los Angeles, 1931 (cropped)

Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Falling Out of Fashion and Back In Again

As often happens after something becomes mass produced, in the 1940’s-1960’s pearls became cheap enough that almost anyone could own them. Pearls came to be seen as being part of the twinset and pearls era and appeared rather old-fashioned. Younger people shied away from them and pearl sales declined a little.

In recent decades, though, this has changed and we have found they are bought and worn by all ages.

Men Wearing Pearls

This pearl revival into fashion has been helped by many famous men sporting a pearl necklace. An important twist has been added to the long history of pearls with important male celebrities like Harry Styles wearing pearl jewelry which previoulsy would have only been seen on females. This androgynous look mean that it’s not unusual at all now for men to ask in a jewelers to try on a pearl necklace.

Styles of Pearl Jewelry

From the simple single pearl stud or pearl pendant to string of pearls – be it a single strand or multiple strands there is a huge array of jewelry designs using pearls.

Pearls can also be set into jewelry framed by other precious gems in which they can look stunning.

To Sum Up …

As you can see, this history of pearls has been long and illustrious. It’s a fascinating history and we are all fortunate to be able to access and wear these beautiful gemstones which are extremely flattering, go with any outfit and add a certain timeless elegance to any attire.

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