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Pearls! A History

Image credit: Portrait of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham by Michiel va Mierevelt(1566-1641) The Licensing and piece information can be found here, and the piece is in the public domain.


In the last post, I mentioned that freshwater pearls have been revered in China since at least the 13th century. Their love story starts much earlier than that. This post is by no means a complete history, but does share some of the story of these prized beauties. Pearls are credited as being the world’s oldest gem, having been loved and gifted since before written record. There is not a single person credited with their discovery, but it is believed they were stumbled across as people sought food in mussels along the shore. Let’s look a bit more closely at the history of the gorgeous pearl, and find some fascinating tidbits along the way!

While the pearl is shrouded in legend and myth, it has been recorded that pearls were presented as gifts to people of the ruling classes in China as far back as 2300 BC. These early pearls were most likely found by divers along the coasts, and later on they traveled from far-away lands via The Silk Road trade routes. Diving came with adventure and danger, and not all who attempted were successful or suited to the task. To help them safely be brought back to the surface, 12th century Chinese divers would tie ropes around their waists.

The Persian Gulf birthed many pearls that journeyed out into the world, and Pliny the Elder sang praises for its productivity. Gifting pearls to royalty continued to be a trend for millennia. The Louvre counts among its collection a fragment of pearl jewelry from 420 BC, which was found in a Persian princess’s sarcophagus. Wanting to reserve them for royals, Julius Caesar put a law into place restricting pearl adornments to the ruling classes only. They were viewed as fashion’s highest symbol of status, and were one of the things that attracted Caesar to Britain.

River pearls were revered in the 13th century in Germany and the surrounding areas, and were used as embellishments for court clothing. These lovely gems were frequently reserved only for royalty, so divers did their best to continue bringing pearls up from the ocean’s depths. It was recorded that Marco Polo gifted Kublai Khan with the Arco Valley Pearl during his travels. When it was found in the 16th and 17th centuries that there were pearls in South and Central America, the “Pearl Age” dawned and they became coveted trade commodities. By the 19th century, ladies of the royal families and nobility across Europe were wearing necklaces, brooches, bracelets, and earrings of elaborate designs and pearls were hunted far and wide to meet the demands, putting stress on the mussel populations as well as on the divers who sought them.

With the introduction of cultured pearls as an industry in 1916, pearls became more accessible the world over – both freshwater and saltwater alike. Icons from Coco Chanel, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis to Michelle Obama, Grace Kelly, and Kate Middleton have adorned themselves with the elegant gems in a variety of designs. While great quality freshwater pearls are more easily attainable financially, this has in no way diminished the love of their luscious saltwater cousins, making room for both in markets across the globe.

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