By Dr Emrys Chew

Long cherished as symbols of purity and perfection, elegance and affluence, pearls have been prized by human civilisation since the dawn of history. Their name derives from the Latin sphaerula, meaning ‘sphere’. The Greeks believed they were drops of moisture flung from Aphrodite’s body as she emerged from the sea. Other ancients held that pearls were the tears of gods, falling as rain from heaven and forming the heart of oysters, thus bringing forth the birth of pearls. Early Arabs called them ‘teardrops of the moon,’ speculating that oysters were drawn to the surface of the water by moonlight and fertilized by dewdrops when they opened their shells. Archaeological evidence suggests that almost 6,000 years ago in the Persian Gulf region, people were buried with a pierced pearl in their hand. For over 3,000 years, the Chinese have collected them for jewellery, traditional medicine, and symbolic value; in Chinese mythology, the dragon chasing a flaming pearl signifies the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. Pearls are highly esteemed in Judeo-Christian, Islamic and Hindu traditions, too, and native Americans were wearing pearl ornaments long before the first Europeans arrived in the New World. Pearls are the ‘queen of gems’ and queens wore them. Pliny the Elder said Cleopatra’s pearls were ‘the most singular and the most unique that nature or man could ever imagine’. Through the ages, societies around the world have fashioned beautiful jewellery and art objects out of natural pearls, collected from certain aquatic molluscs. Yet the discovery of how to induce pearl formation, and the introduction of cultured pearls to the global market in more recent times, have made pearls even more widely available and unsurpassed in splendour.

Prized since ancient times for the beauty of their form, colour and lustre, pearls have a unique organic origin. Unlike gem minerals that are generated in the depths of the earth by geological action, pearls are produced by living creatures: various freshwater and saltwater molluscs that include mussels, oysters, conches and clams. They are secreted by soft internal tissues of the animal around an irritant, such as a parasite or grain of sand, and are built up in layers of conchiolin and aragonite (calcium carbonate) known as nacre. The iridescent sheen or ‘orient’ of pearl arises from light interference reflected from the boundaries of these thin layers. This shimmering quality is also true of the shell lining of the pearl mollusc, known as mother-of pearl. Pearls occur naturally in many shapes and sizes, ranging from classically formed spheres to freeform ‘baroque’ pearls, and tiny seed pearls to large South Sea specimens. All pearls are delicate jewels: soft (measuring only 3 on Mohs’ scale) and sensitive to acids, dryness and humidity. Consequently, unlike the inorganic gems, the natural lifespan of the average pearl is less than 300 years.

Natural pearls have been collected from Indian Ocean sources for thousands of years. These include pearl fisheries in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Manaar (between India and Sri Lanka), where pearls are still dived for between May and September, and harvested by traditional methods. Marco Polo described the dangers of pearl fishing in the Gulf of Manaar back in the thirteenth century, but it has been a source of fine pearls for well over 2,000 years. The coasts of Australia and Polynesia have also yielded exceptional examples, including the fabled natural black pearls of Tahiti. The finest pearls are formed by marine oysters of the genus Pinctada. Natural pearls of good quality also occur in the rivers of Scotland, Ireland, France, Austria and Germany, and in the Mississippi River in America, where they are found in freshwater mussels such as Margaritifera margaritifera.

Some oyster and mussel species are reared in farms to yield cultured pearls. A piece of body tissue, with or without a bead, is inserted into the flesh of the creature, around which the nacre is deposited to form a pearl that is harvested several years later. According to Apollonius of Tyre, Arabs living near the Red Sea during the second century BCE made early attempts to culture pearls. But most gem historians agree that the first true cultured pearls were produced in China in the fourteenth century, typically half-pearls made with small Buddha shapes formed out of lead and introduced as nuclei into the shell lining of freshwater mussels. The modern industry owes its existence to Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954), who pioneered new techniques of pearl cultivation in late nineteenth-century Japan. These have spread to China as well as warmer regions around Australia and the Pacific.

Pearls are evaluated commercially in terms of their lustre, size, shape, surface, and colour. Historically, natural saltwater pearls that possess all these qualities are the most valuable since they are also exceptionally rare. Some of the world’s finest collections of natural pearls have achieved legendary status. Marco Polo referred to the beautiful, large round pink pearls of Japan as ‘even more precious than white ones’. Exquisite and expensive natural pearls, in a multitude of shapes and shades, were treasured by royal women such as Cleopatra of Egypt, the Byzantine Empress Theodora, Isabella of Castile, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I of England, Mary Queen of Scots, Catherine the Great of Russia, the French Empress Eugenie, and the Qing Dowager Empress Cixi. Queen Isabella’s pearls were so valuable that they could finance Columbus’ expedition to the New World in 1492. The famous 204-grain grey drop-pearl known as La Peregrina (The Pilgrim), discovered off the coast of Panama in 1510 and owned by Mary Tudor, was acquired by the actress Elizabeth Taylor in 1969 at the cost of $37,000. The 1,800-grain Hope pearl— probably the world’s largest surviving natural pearl—was sold at auction in 1974 for $200,000. The 2,400-grain aubergine-shaped Pearl of Asia—thought to have been the world’s largest natural pearl—would have been priceless but is now lost.

Nowadays, however, nearly 80 per cent of pearl production comes from farmed Akoya oysters (Pinctada imbricata), a coldwater species that yields the highest-grade cultured pearls in the world. Akoya pearls from Japan and China are noted for their superior lustre. But the most prestigious and precious cultured pearls come from giant South Sea oysters (Pinctada maxima), a tropical species that produces larger pearls in an array of spectacular colours, including cream, gold, green, pink, violet, blue, grey and black. Since the discovery of the Pinctada maxima oyster by divers off the coast of Australia in the 1880s, Australia’s annual output has grown to about 60 per cent of the world’s South Sea pearl production. The cultured black pearl market continues to be dominated by Tahiti in French Polynesia. These South Sea cultured pearls retail at many thousands of dollars in the global market.

Yet the pearl’s unique optical properties and organic origin have given it an allure and mystique that transcend purely commercial values. From earliest antiquity, the pearl was synonymous with the acquisition of knowledge; some societies used pearls to procure oracular vision for the interpretation of dreams. Pearls were symbolic of purity and perfection. As a gem of biblical significance, Jesus compared the gospel message of the kingdom of God to ‘a pearl of great price’. Leonardo da Vinci wrote that pearls rendered all who wore them virtuous and true. Pearls have also been used as fertility and love tokens, dedicated to women. According to ancient Indian legends, Vishnu plucked the pearl from the bottom of the ocean and gave it to his daughter Pandaia on her wedding day. Even today, pearls are a customary part of the bridal wardrobe.

The ancients spoke of the medicinal properties of the pearl, efficacious for treating everything from indigestion to heart disease. Calcium carbonate, its primary component, continues to be used as an antacid in modern times. Traditional Chinese medicine has long employed the medicinal qualities of ingested powdered pearl to cure disorders such as epilepsy, convulsions, hyperactivity, hypertension, insomnia and palpitations. Pearl powder, a rich source of minerals and amino acids, has also been applied externally to revitalise the skin. Cixi, the last Empress Dowager of the Qing dynasty, used expensive powdered pearl facial masks to preserve her complexion.

As ancient trade routes expanded and societies developed across Asia and Europe, pearls became important symbols of wealth, status and spirituality. Ancient Middle Eastern cultures were apparently the first to value pearls and pearl shells, prized for their mother-of-pearl. In Persia, the gems were said to be worth their weight in gold. The passion for pearls later spread to the Mediterranean. Pearl-adorned objects have been uncovered at archaeological sites throughout the former Roman Empire, from Syria to North Africa and northern France. According to some historians, one of the reasons Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BCE was to obtain freshwater pearls.

Ongoing exploration of the Americas and newly established trade routes to the East made pearls more widely available in Renaissance Europe, beginning in the sixteenth century. The new centres of the pearl trade—Lisbon and Seville—overflowed with pearls from the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. The privileged classes bedecked themselves with these gems, which reflected refined taste as much as riches. Irregularly shaped baroque pearls were especially admired.

Pearls had, of course, been used in America centuries before the advent of the European explorers. In ancient burial mounds near Hopewell, Ohio, archaeologists discovered vast quantities of freshwater pearls. Native Americans living in the Ohio River Valley between 200 BCE and 500 CE possessed as many pearls as the royal courts of Europe, which they wore as amulets and necklaces. The Lady of Cofitachequi, ruler of Talimeco (in present-day South Carolina) greeted De Soto with gifts of freshwater pearls.

In Eastern Europe, too, Russia continued cultural traditions from the old Byzantine Empire that involved the lavish use of freshwater pearls. Russian noblewomen owned large headdresses (called kokoshniki) decorated with pearls, lace and coloured gemstones. Imperial workshops created a wide range of luxurious pearl objects, often adding pearl embroidery to rich textiles. On many of the pieces, designers used pearls to produce intricate floral and scroll-like patterns. These include some of the fabulous jewelled Easter eggs fashioned by Fabergé for the imperial family up until the end of Romanov rule in 1917.

Pearls are also mentioned in ancient Chinese texts, such as the Liezi, but they would become especially popular in China during the Qing period (1644-1911). The imperial family and wealthy elite employed generous amounts to enhance costumes and furnishings. In theory, the emperor himself was supposed to use pearls only from freshwater mussels in Manchuria, the dynasty’s homeland. But Qing imperial art displays so many big round pearls that at least some probably came from marine oysters in waters off southern China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Indeed, so great was the demand that imitation pearls were also used.

By the 1800s, the discovery of new pearl beds in the Pacific and a revival of fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico prompted a ‘pearl renaissance’ across the Western world. It was an era of elaborate pearl parures—matched sets of necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches. Pearls adorned religious objects, too, in churches and sometimes synagogues. A growing middle class in both Europe and the United States now had the money to buy them. By the mid-nineteenth century, seed pearls had become the pearls of choice. Jewellers would work with seed pearls imported from India and China that had been strung on silk or white horsehair. The resulting pieces were so delicate that they often resembled bridal lace.

During the time of new industrial fortunes, ostentatious wealth and ornate style at the turn of the twentieth century, pearls found favour with American socialites as much as European royalty and aristocracy. An all-white effect was sought in fine jewellery, achieved by masses of pearls or pearls with diamonds; and swags, garlands, bows, and tassels became familiar motifs in jewellery design.

Pearls also began to be worn for less formal occasions, a fashion that persists to this day. Flappers of the 1920s wore long ropes of pearls as they danced the Charleston. New jewellery designs, reflecting Art Nouveau styles and the Arts and Crafts movement, emphasised freeform freshwater pearls. Imitation pearls were also in vogue, gracing hats and dresses in both traditional Western and nontraditional Eastern styles.

With the arrival of cultured pearls on the international scene in the 1930s, pearls became more available and affordable than ever before. Although purists initially shunned cultured pearls, influential designers such as Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel embraced them. By the 1950s, they had become essential accessories for well-dressed women. In recent decades, the broad range of colours and sizes of cultured pearls has inspired the creation of sophisticated pearl jewellery as well as whimsical pearl-decorated objects. Pearls may be everywhere today, but they are still as glamorous as ever; images of first ladies and fashion icons wearing pearls underscore the gems’ popularity.

As products of living creatures, pearls are unique among gems. In size, shape and colour, they exist in a stunning diversity of forms—far more than just small, round and white. Depending on prevailing fashions, the most sought-after pearls may be perfectly spherical, pear-shaped or irregular. But pearls themselves have never gone out of fashion: a single large pearl still provides special elegance, while a cluster of seed pearls still lights up a garment or an object of art. With this long and lustrous history, the aura of the pearl remains undiminished.

Further Reading

  1. Christopher Cavey, Gems and Jewels: Fact and Fable (London, 1992).
  2. Neil H. Landman (ed.), Pearls: A Natural History (New York, 2001).
  3. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. Teresa Waugh (London, 1984).
  4. Stephen Spignesi, Gems, Jewels and Treasures (New York, 2001).