History of pearls

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History of pearls


The Erato necklace from the Artemis Collection.

Both Islamic and Hindu religions revered pearls from their beginnings. In Islamic thought, they represent perfection and completeness, and are mentioned several times in the Koran. India's God, Krishna, was credited with discovering pearls when he took one from the sea and presented it to his daughter on her wedding day, thus associating them with marriage. The Hindus considered it's luminosity to be associated with the moon, but were convinced that pearls were formed in elephants prior to deciding that they were dewdrops that fell into the sea.

In Egypt, mother-of-pearl decorations date back as far as 4000 BC, and pearls were buried with the dead.

China's recorded history discussed the value of pearls in a document written in 2300 BC called the Shu King, in which disdain is expressed for one province who produced pearls that were less than perfectly round. In 500 D, they completed the first cultured blister pearls by inserting tiny Buddha images inside freshwater mussels.

Early Christians described the Holy Grail as being adorned with pearls, which were hugely popular in the Roman Empire, where they were considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing. One general, Vitellius, was said to have financed a military campaign with one of his mother's pearl earrings, which was doubtless nowhere near as large as the two owned by Cleopatra and one of which she dissolved in wine and drank to impress Marc Antony.


The Nike necklace from the Gaia Collection.

During Medieval times, the riverbeds of Scotland, Scandinavia, Germany and Russia provided pearls for noblemen and women, which were in huge demand. Virtually all monarchs since then have been depicted wearing pearls, although the Middle Eastern rulers had been wearing them for thousands of years. Henry the Eighth and his courtiers all sported them, men wore them into battle for luck, and Elizabeth the 1st had such an appetite for them (possibly to support her being thought of as a King ,)that she tried to establish an artificial pearl industry. Though the European expansion into the New World totally depleted the American pearl oyster population in the 1600's, the Persian Gulf and South American saltwater pearls filled the gap and provided higher quality.

The mother of pearl button industry flourished, as did the aristocracy's desire for pearls in virtually every country except, oddly, Japan, which prized the shells but did not value the pearls themselves until the 1800's. But it is Japan that we can thank for Mr Mikimoto's successful collaboration with two other patent holders that gave us the definitive formula for culturing pearls, thus allowing virtually anyone who desires them an opportunity to own them today.

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