The pearl is the oldest gem known to man, for centuries a symbol of purity, wisdom, beauty and wealth.
The main beauty of pearls lies in the fact that they glow and therefore reflect their beauty on the wearer. This has been recognized since the beginning of civilization and their story is full of symbolism and romance. The highlights of their history run like this...
Down the centuries pearls have played a central role in style and refinement. They have been favoured by many style leaders such as Cleopatra, Theodora, Mary Tudor, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, the French Empress Eugenie, Catherine the Great of Russia, Queen Mary, Queen Victoria, Princess Alexandra, Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Jacqui Kennedy and most recently the late Princess Diana, Caroline of Monaco, Mrs Michelle Obama, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anna Wintour and Emilia Fox.
The oldest pearl beds recorded are the Persian gulf (Ptolemy 307 BC) and Ceylon, visited in 1294 by Marco Polo who described at length the dangers involved in pearl fishing.
Pearls were used as a measure of wealth in the Roman era. Julius Caesar’s love of pearls is said to have been a contributing factor to his invasion of England in 55BC. Scottish pearls were well known to the Romans as some of the finest available, alongside Oriental pearls from the Persian Gulf and Ceylon.
Roman women had a consuming passion to wear exceptionally fine pearls as earrings. They preferred pear shaped pearls and as each pearl could be worth a fortune they would wear a whole inheritance in each ear, posing a threat to their husbands’solvency. Because of this craze for pearls Caesar was petitioned to decree that only women of the highest rank should be allowed to wear them. At one stage the Roman General Vitellius paid for an entire military campaign by the sale of one pearl from his mother’s earrings.
Cleopatra possessed two magnificent pear shaped pearls, which she wore as earrings. In her bid to demonstrate that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth which put it beyond conquest, Cleopatra wagered Mark Anthony that she would consume the entire wealth of a country in a single meal and is reputed to have dissolved one of these precious pearls in the wine with which she toasted his health. Upon Cleopatra's death the remaining pearl was taken to Rome, halved and placed on the earlobes of the Statue of Venus in the Pantheon. Roman statues often had pierced earlobes to enable earrings to be placed on them.
Theodora was the wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian who ruled Constantinople in the 6th century. It is said she was the daughter of a bear trainer in Constantinople who was taken to the east by an army captain and abandoned while still very young. She made her way back to Constantinople on her own and soon after her arrival met Justinian, who fell deeply in love with her and married her. Together they ruled over a centre of great art, intellect, power and wealth.
Theodora loved pearls and wore as many as she could. She first took to wearing many of them as long earrings and when the weight became too much for her earlobes she wore a diadem with long strands of pearls hanging from each side to which she could add as many pearls as she liked. The beauty of Theodora can be seen in the mosaics of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna.
The Middle Ages was a time when men started investigating the composition of the world around them. A wonder at the time was how the pearl, such a beautiful, rare and mysterious gem, could be formed in such ugly surroundings. The solution to this, as expounded by the alchemists, was the belief that when a single teardrop from an angel fell from the heavens and found the heart of an open oyster a pearl was born. From these roots arose the erroneous belief that pearls are for tears.
In the Middle Ages pearls were considered a potent tonic and aphrodisiac; this fact is not surprising, as pearls are composed of calcium carbonate which when dissolved in lemon juice becomes a strong potion. This cure-all remedy was reputed to resuscitate the dead and was used for purifying blood, curing heart trouble, impotence, timidity, melancholia, madness and fever, as Lorenzo de Medici found out when he was cured of fever with this particular brew. To this day in China lower quality pearls and their shell hosts are ground up for use as an aphrodisiac, as ground fertilizer and for pharmaceutical and cosmetic use.
The first cultured pearls (i.e. initiated by man) were produced by the Chinese in the 14thcentury. These were in fact half pearls made with small Buddha shapes formed out of lead and introduced, as the nucleus, into the shell lining of a freshwater mussel. The mussel was returned to the water in a lake or pond and left for many months. The mother of pearl substance that covered these Buddha shapes was nacre, the same type of nacre that forms a round pearl, except that the layers were half round instead of fully circular
Leonardo Da Vinci wrote that pearls rendered all who wear them virtuous and true.
When Christopher Columbus discovered America he dubbed it the “land of pearls”, and before large scale mining for silver and gold began to take place in 1530, the principal export from America was pearls, destined mainly for Spain.
The Peregrina Pearl has traveled through the centuries, kept its allure and has bestowed its beauty upon several stylish women. This famous pearl, the size of a pigeon’s egg, was found in the Americas by a slave who it is said was given his freedom while his owner received a large farm and was given the post of mayor. The Peregrina became the most highly regarded jewel of the 16th century and was then given by Phillip II of Spain to Mary Tudor as a wedding gift. On her death it returned to Spain and appears again in several Spanish court portraits.
Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I, took the Peregrina to France. It then went to Prince Louis Napoleon who in 1837 sold it to the marquis of Abercorn. The marquis’s son, drilled the Peregrina and recorded its exact weight, 10.192 grams. When, in 1969, Elizabeth Taylor bought a pearl reputed to be the Peregrina for $37,000, its authenticity was challenged. However, due to the exact record of its weight being kept, experts were able to confirm that it was indeed the famous pearl. La Peregrina was auctioned by Christies Auction House and sold for 10 million dollars plus saleroom fees, not a bad return.
It was at this time that the skillful manufacture of Venetian iridescent glass beads came into fashion. These were the first imitation pearls and their large-scale production severely affected the pearl fishing enterprise in America. These glass beads were filled with wax and cost one penny a piece. It is said that Elizabeth I wore quite a few of them alongside her priceless collection of natural pearls.
In the 17th Century a Frenchman called Jacquin developed “essence of orient”, the single most important development in imitation pearls which is still used today. He came upon this invention when observing his housekeeper cleaning a fish in a basin of water. Jacquin noticed that the fish slime rising to the surface had mother of pearl reflections; he then filtered it and mixed it with varnish. This mixture of fish slime and lacquer was called “essence of orient”. He poured it on the inside surface of a hollow glass bead, which he then filled with wax to produce imitation pearls. “Essence of Orient” is still used today by large imitation pearl manufacturers; they nowadays coat alabaster beads in this substance and use the slime from salmon, chad and herring. A cheaper method of producing imitation pearls today is by coating plastic beads in acrylic paint.
Some of the pearls belonging to Elizabeth I came from her predecessor Mary Tudor, others from the crown jewels of Navarre, Portugal, Burgundy and Scotland. The finest pearls in Europe came into her possession when Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded, leaving an empty treasury; her jewels were sold to Elizabeth I despite strong contest from other heads of state like Catherine de Medici. These valuable gems, called the Hanoverian Pearls, consisted of 6 long rows and 25 loose pearls, some as big as nutmegs. They had been a wedding present to Mary Queen of Scots from her husband the Dauphin of France, whose mother Catherine de Medici had been given them by her uncle Pope Clement VII on her wedding day.
It is important to bear in mind that many of the natural pearls found, were found by chance, as the shells of many of the pearl producing oysters and mussels were used to make mother of pearl buttons and ornaments. Indeed some, like the Tahitian pearl Pinctada Margaritifera oyster shell, was in such high demand due to the beautiful iridescence of its surface that it was almost totally exhausted by the end of the 19th century
Empress Eugenie, consort to Napoleon III, was the most stylish and trend setting woman of her time. The Empress’s love of pearls is well documented. She owned in particular a beautiful strand of natural Tahitian pearls seen in one of her portraits, the famous Peregrina pearl for a brief period, and finally the “Queen Pearl”, a record setting natural freshwater pearl which was named after her. The “Queen Pearl” weighed 4.65 grams and had originally been found by a carpenter Mr Jacob Quackenbush in New Jersey. He sold it for $1500 to Charles Tiffany who sent it to a Paris gem dealer where Empress Eugenie bought it for an undisclosed sum.
The greatest peak in popularity of the natural pearl was reached at the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th Century. With increasing wealth and a demand for rich rather than gaudy or showy jewelry there was no gem that commanded itself as highly as the pearl. Noted for never being obtrusive and always having a refining effect, pearls were used to harmonize diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other coloured stones.
In 1917 Cartier acquired their New York premises when they sold a double row of natural saltwater pearls, then valued at over 1 million dollars, to a lady in exchange for her town house. This house is still the main Cartier premises in New York. The same pearls were re-sold in 1957, at the bottom of the natural pearl market, for $170,000.
With the popularity of natural pearls at such a peak, demand outgrew supply and the depletion of pearl beds around the world began in earnest as fishermen used diving equipment and were no longer constrained by the limited staying power of divers’lungs. Dredging equipment was also used which brought up every shell on the ocean bed including infant shells that couldn't possibly contain a pearl.
The demise of the natural pearl started at the beginning of the 20th Century as:
The Chinese had cultured semi-circular pearls since the 14th century, and later French, American and Swedish scientists, notably the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus in 1748, had been studying how to aid pearl formation in a mussel or oyster. However it was not until 1907 that two Japanese researchers Mr Mise and Mr Nishikawa discovered the technique of round pearl cultivation.
Considering the pivotal role of the Japanese in the history of the pearl and its evolution, it is surprising to read that in 1670 the traveller Taverner wrote that the Japanese people did not hold pearls in high esteem although some fine pearls could be obtained along the coastline. Half a century later the Japanese discovered the esteem in which the Chinese held pearls and in 1727 Kaempfer recorded that the finest pearls found were those from the Akoya oyster in Japan, not unlike the Persian pearl oysters.
In 1907 Tatsuhei Mise & Tokichi Nishikawa discovered independently and simultaneously the secret of seeding a nucleus into a living oyster. They each applied to patent aspects central to pearl production. Upon seeing each other’s patent applications it was clear they had both reached the same conclusion so they signed the Mise-Nishikawa agreement - to this day the heart of pearl culture technology.
A year later in 1908 Mikimoto (who had already been granted a patent in 1896 to produce half pearls) applied for a patent to produce full pearls. When he became aware of the Mise-Nishikawa patented method, Mikimoto altered his own patent so as not to invalidate it, and bought rights to use the Mise-Nishikawa method. Mikimoto then began an unprecedented expansion of cultured pearls and left Mise and Nishikawa’s names for the history books.
Kokichi Mikimoto, born in 1858 the son of noodle and vegetable vendors, had a dream that every woman should have the opportunity to own a pearl necklace. This dream inspired him to change the pearl industry single handed within a few decades.
When Mikimoto began his crusade cultured pearls were viewed as “fake natural” pearls, but within a few years the best jewellers in the world recognised them for their individuality and beauty. It is important to remember that cultured pearls, although aided to start their existence, are completely independent and man has no control over their eventual size, shape, colour or even whether they survive. Each pearl whether cultured or natural is truly individual.
At one point Mikimoto produced 75% of the world’s demand for cultured pearls. When he died at the age of 97, he had almost achieved his dream; pearls were more accessible than ever before. A strand of Mikimoto pearls that cost $100 at the time was to the untrained eye remarkably similar to a natural pearl strand worth ½ million dollars.
Owing to the impact that the new cultured Japanese pearls were having, the first gemmological laboratory in the world was established in London in early 1925 by Basil Anderson, a Chemistry and Biology graduate from King's College London, primarily to identify natural and cultured pearls and other gems.
The first Biwa Freshwater cultured pearl made its debut in the 1930’s. Masayo Fusia, emboldened by the success that oyster cultured pearls were having, decided to use the same method on a mussel at Lake Biwa, Japan, in 1928. At first Fusia found that there was a huge mortality rate among the mussels, as due to the many twists of their intestine it was almost impossible not to damage the mollusc when implanting the nucleus. Whether by design or accident Fusia found that only the piece of mantle used in seeding the mussel was necessary to start the pearl formation process; the nucleus was redundant.
When in the 1930’s cultured pearls emerged from Lake Biwa in natural colours never seen before like peach, pink, orange, mauve and heather, they were an instant success and were very much sought after. This technical knowhow was taken to China, and in only half a century the Chinese have achieved one of Mikimoto’s dreams “that every woman should be able to own a pearl necklace” as they dominate the freshwater production market and they produce a variety of qualities and varying price points.
By the end of the 1970’s the water in Lake Biwa began to show signs of pollution due to septic tanks from the newly created holiday resorts around the lake and herbicides used by neighbouring farmers. A few pearl experts took the technology to China and initiated the now immense Chinese freshwater pearl industry. Biwa Lake was declared biologically dead in 1984. China has now taken over the production of freshwater pearls for the world market and is increasingly developing a better pearl to equal the once prized Biwa pearl.
The most recently discovered famous pearl is the Abernethy Pearl. It is a perfectly round, white Scottish Natural Freshwater pearl weighing 2.225 grams and was found in the backwater of the river Tay in 1967 by Bill Abernethy who sold it to Cairncross Jewellers in Perth where it can be seen on request.