The History of Pearls
Called the “Queen of Gems,” pearls have been around almost as long as humans. Because of the relative ease of getting them, the pearl was the first real gem that early humans used for adornment. You didn’t need to mine for them or change them in any way once you found them. They came out of the shell ready for show. Because they’re “soft” gems it was very easy for people to make jewelry from them – even with the primitive tools they had. Pearls were thought to be a perfect blend of nature. They had the shape and beauty of the moon and the colors of a rainbow. Before cultured pearls were created in the early 1900’s, natural pearls were so rare and costly that only the very rich could afford them.
The word “Pearl” comes from the Latin word “pirum” which means “pear.” Natural pearls are pear-shaped and are found inside mollusk shells such as clams, oysters or mussels. The saltwater variety is found in oceans, gulfs and bays. The freshwater ones are found in rivers and lakes. Since pearls come from living creatures they aren’t considered precious stones.
Eastern nations valued pearls as a sign of a maiden’s purity. Romans linked pearls with Isis and thought they would win her favor by wearing them. The Roman Emperor, Caligula, even had a pearl necklace made for his horse! The Chinese crush pearls into powder and use them as medicine. It is said that Cleopatra once crushed a large pearl from one of her earrings and put it in a cup of wine which she then drank. India’s history is filled with tales of pearls and gods.
Because of the high demand for pearls, by the 1800’s it soon became apparent that the supply was nearly gone. This was due to overfishing and pollution. Then something happened that changed the face of the pearl forever. A man named Kokichi Mikimoto and his wife, Ume, did what no one else had been able to do. They were able to coax oysters to produce round pearls on demand. This changed pearling from then on. Today’s pearls are very affordable and are always in fashion. From Jackie Kennedy’s chokers to Audrey Hepburn’s long pearl necklaces, pearls are at the forefront of design. They have been coupled with crystals and other gemstones at this year’s Golden Globe Awards and on the Red Carpet. They are a classic and never go out of style.