Pearls have been prized throughout their history for their lustrous, sensuous beauty. Pearls are an oddity in the jewelry word. Unlike other gemstones, which must be extracted from the earth, pearls come from a living animal, a mollusk. They derive their iridescence, their glow, from an organic material called nacre; the mollusk secretes it when an irritant (usually a microscopic organism, not as commonly thought, a piece of sand) finds its way into the fleshy part inside the shell.
Queen Alexandra and her pearl chokers. Read about her chokers here.
Most unique of all, pearls emerge from their shells as finished products. They don’t require any shaping or cutting to bring out their natural brilliance.
Exactly when and how pearls were discovered is a bit of a mystery. It is thought that “gatherers” or fisherman who enjoyed shellfish stumbled upon them while searching for food. Pearls quickly acquired a royal fascination as virtually every major empire of note (especially ancient Rome) valued them for their beauty and powerful symbolism.
Queen Elizabeth I and her ropes of pearls.
Elizabeth I was said to have 3,000 gowns decorated with pearls, as well as 80 wigs festooned with them. It’s an embellishment that has been embraced by designers ever since! At the peak of the ancient Rome’s obsession with pearls, during the first century BC, women upholstered couches with them and sewed so many onto their gowns they trampled their own pearl embroidered hems.
Duchess of Windsor pearl suite. Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s. Read about these pieces in a former post.
The Persian Gulf pearl traders of the 18th and 19th centuries brought the gems to the attention of India’s Mughal emperors, who festooned tunics, belts, carpets and canopies with ropes and ropes of pearls.
By 1900 demand for the natural sea treasures was so high that scientists in Japan and Australia, both of which are surrounded by seas with sizable populations of pearl producing oysters, began to experiment with ways to intervene in the natural process. In 1893, Kokichi Mokimoto, the sone of a noodle maker in Toba, Japan, perfected a method of culturing pearls, a process in which a spherical bead or piece of mantle tissue is implanted into the mollusk, stimulating nacre formation. The cultured pearl market was born.
The steady supply of shapely, beautiful pearls has meant that millions of people all over the world can afford pearls of all shapes and sizes. In recent years the Chinese pearl farmers in particular have introduced advanced culturing techniques for the freshwater pearl.
Here’s a fun fact. Did you know….in Sanskrit the pearl is know as mukta, (the pure) pa-le in Burmese, chun-ti in Chinese and lulu in Arabic. The pearl was one of nine gems that formed the navaratna, the talismanic nine gem jewel of ancient Sanskrit culture.
Are you a pearl lover? Let me know!