Pearl HistoryPearls are organic gems, created when an oyster covers a foreign object with beautiful layers of nacre. Long ago, pearls were important financial assets, comparable in price to real estate, as thousands of oysters had to be searched for just one pearl. They were rare because they were created only by chance.
Today, pearls are cultured by Man. Shell beads are placed inside an oyster and the oyster is returned to the water. When the pearls are later harvested, the oyster has covered the bead with layers of nacre. Most cultured pearls are produced in Japan. In the warmer waters of the South Pacific, larger oysters produce South Sea cultured pearls and Tahitian black cultured pearls, which are larger in size. Freshwater pearls are cultured in mussels, mostly in China.
The quality of pearls is judged by the orient, which is the soft iridescence caused by the refraction of light by the layers of nacre, and lustre, the reflectivity and shine of the surface. Fine pearls do not have any flaws or spots in the nacre: it has an even, smooth texture. Other factors which affect value are the regularity of the shape, size, and color: rose tints are the most favored.
Cultured and natural pearls can be distinguished from imitation ones by a very simple test. Take the pearl and rub it (gently!) against the edge of a tooth. Cultured and natural pearls will feel slightly rough, like fine sandpaper, because of the texture of natural nacre. Imitations will feel as smooth as glass because the surface is molded or painted on a smooth bead.
Pearls have been worn for thousands of years. Pearl popularity reached its peak during Roman times when women of the privileged class were richly adorned with pearls. Pearls found favor with Julius Caesar, and it is said Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in wine and drank it to prove her love to Marc Antony. The Roman general Vitellius is said to have financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
The Persian Gulf was one of the main sources of natural pearls for centuries, as were Venezuela & Panama where pearls were discovered by Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Balboa on their travels.
The demand for pearls dropped when diamonds were discovered in the early 1700's. As they became more affordable than pearls, the demand for diamonds soared. When pearls tried to compete, they lost some of their attraction due to imitations and poor quality. Unfortunately, this led to worldwide decline in pearl consumption, although in the late 1700s they gained ground again when new pearl sources were discovered.
By the early 1900s, three Japanese men had all independently discovered the secret of culturing pearls: Kokichi Mikimoto, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise. Eventually Kokichi Mikimoto bought out the rights of the other two and started a huge business of pearl culturing which to this day retains the name ‘Mikimoto’ as the premier brand of Japanese Saltwater cultured Akoya pearls.
Pearls have long been treasured and highly valued in many cultures throughout history. As far back as 2300 BC, Chinese records indicate that pearls were the prized possessions of (and gifts to) royalty. In India, ancient Hindu texts repeatedly refer to pearls, stating in one place that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl. In ancient Egypt, mother-of-pearl was used for decorative purposes as far back as 4000 BC, although the use of actual pearls did not come until much later -- perhaps the 5th century BC.
In ancient Rome, pearls were a highly prized accessory, and worn as a symbol of wealth and prestige. They were such a status symbol, that an effort was actually made to prohibit the wearing of pearls by those not deserving of them. Perhaps the most celebrated incident in Roman history involving pearls has to do with a banquet given by Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen, for the Roman leader Marc Antony. The banquet was described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his book, "Natural History". Although some current historians dispute the details and significance of the banquet, there is general agreement that the incident described did indeed take place. The essence of the story is that Cleopatra wagered Antony that she could give the most expensive meal ever provided. When the only thing placed in front of her was a vessel of sour wine (i.e., vinegar), Antony wondered how she would be able to win the bet. Whereupon Cleopatra removed one of her pearl earrings -- said by Pliny to have been worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold -- and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl dissolved in the strongly acidic solution, and Cleopatra drank it down, winning her wager.
The ancient Greeks also highly valued pearls, using them especially at weddings, where they were said to bring love. With many natural oyster beds lying along the Persian Gulf, the Arab cultures also placed a high value on pearls, which are described in the Koran as one of the greatest treasures provided in Paradise.
Pearls in Modern HistoryIn the Western Hemisphere, Native Americans also valued the freshwater pearls they had discovered and harvested from lakes and rivers. The story is told of a Native American princess, who presented Hernando de Soto with gifts of animal skins, cloth, copper and freshwater pearls. Colonizers from Spain, France and England all found native tribes using pearls as jewelry and for trade. Indeed, once the colonial powers discovered the sheer volume of pearls available in America's rivers, pearls became one of the chief products sent from the colonies back to Europe. Along with freshwater pearls from North American rivers, saltwater pearls were harvested from the Caribbean and along the coasts of Central and South America. All of these pearl supplies began to dry up during the 19th century, however, as a result of over fishing and the pollution caused by industrialization.
The History Of Pearls In North AmericaIn addition to the pearls themselves, American mother-of-pearl also became a major export, both from the North American colonies and, later, from the United States. A primary use of mother-of-pearl was to make shiny, iridescent clothing buttons, of which billions were exported all over the world (mainly from Iowa). This lasted all the way through the mid-20th century, when the invention of plastic quickly replaced mother-of-pearl for this use. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the history of pearls reached a major turning point. At that time, a number of Japanese researchers had independently discovered the techniques that could be used to cause oysters to create pearls essentially "on demand." The man who finally combined the various technical processes with business acumen and worldwide marketing know-how, was Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a restaurateur. Today, Mikimoto is credited with almost single-handedly having created the worldwide cultured pearl industry.