The History of Pearls

Iconic images of people wearing pearlss

The history of pearls is one of discovery and invention. Pearls have adorned the rich and powerful throughout history and form part of the visual culture of humanity. The discovery of a natural or wild pearl is a rare find, but today pearls are cultured or ‘farmed’ making them a renewable gemstone, available to all, not just kings and queens.

The Discovery of Pearls

Pearls are created naturally when a mollusc, typically an oyster or mussel has an irritant such as a food particle or grain of sand within its shell. It's reaction is to wrap the irritant with protective layers of nacre, a composition of aragonite and conchiolinan which over time forms what we know as a pearl.

It would make sense that pearls were discovered around the same time as man, searching for food, enjoyed oysters and mussels to eat. Ever since their discovery, pearls have been celebrated by different cultures throughout the course of human history, across all corners of the globe.

various images of pearls

Ancient Egypt & Cleopatra's Banquet

In ancient Egypt pearls were regarded as extremely precious and they were prized above all other gems. Cleopatra famously declared that she could host the most expensive dinner that there had ever been. With an empty plate, she dropped a single pearl earring into a goblet of vinegar where it dissolved. Cleopatra proceeded to pick up her goblet and drink from it. During this time, the pearl had an estimated equivalent value of 9 million dollars.

cleopatra's pearl cocktail

Ancient Greece

In 400BC the Ancient Greeks also cherished the pearl and it was believed that pearls were the tears of the gods. Ancient Greek culture also believed that wearing pearls would prevent women from crying on their wedding day. Much like today, in ancient Greek culture, pearls were synonymous with ideas of love and romance.

Roman Empire

By 40AD during the Roman era, pearls were still highly sought-after items owned only by the elites of Roman society as only persons of certain ranks could wear pearls. Their value had also not declined and the Roman general Vitellius famously paid for an entire military campaign through the sale of one of his mother’s pearl earrings.

 The Renaissance

In the 1500’s European renaissance it was illegal for anyone not of nobility to own pearls. The production of replicate or fake pearls was also strictly forbidden and punishment for committing this crime would result in losing one’s own hand.
Whilst losing your hand over the matter of a pearl is extreme, these precious gems were extremely rare and only sourced naturally from the few oysters which were found to have produced them.

The Invention of Cultured Pearls

The demand for beautiful pearl jewellery has always been high, and as man became more adept at diving for pearls, so the overfishing of them made these treasures of the deep even scarcer. The pearls we know today are Cultured pearls and their development was the start of a transformation in the accessibility of this precious gem and the shifting landscape surrounding its production and price.  

In the late 19th century ideas of cultivating pearls began to be explored. The Australian William Saville-Kent from 1890 to 1893 succeeded in making hemispherical pearls, however it is the name of Kokichi Mikimoto, who is synonymous with developing the first semi-round cultured pearl in 1893. After extensive testing and plenty of failure he mastered a successful technique and patented his technology, “Method of pearl formation”. Mikimoto subsequently opened a number of pearl culturing farms in order to produce pearls on an industrial scale.

How a Cultured Pearl is Made

Molluscs such as seawater oysters or freshwater mussels make pearls as a defence to foreign objects, such as food particles or grit which causes an irritation. The mollusc will then protect itself by coating the invader with pearly layers of nacre. Cultivation exploits this natural process as a bead like structure or shell particle is inserted to into the mollusc and forms the nucleus of the pearl. The layers of nacre wrap around the bead forming a beautiful round pearl, which after a period of time is carefully harvested by skilled workers.

Kokichi Mikimoto

Kokichi Mikimoto, known as the King of Pearls and celebrated for his contribution to the invention, techniques and the distribution of knowledge of pearls across the world.

It would be fair to say he realised his dream of “adorning the necks of all women around the world with pearls”. Mikimoto’s company remains the world’s leading brand of the finest Japanese cultured pearls.

The Value of Natural vs Cultured Pearls

It was not an easy task to create cultured pearls, and once mastered Mikimoto had the task of promoting his superb pearls to a jewellery industry, some of which had hailed them as fake. Mikimoto won what was known as ‘The Paris Trial’ in the 1920’s and his cultured pearls were globally recognised as true gemstones.

From this, the world of pearls and pearl jewellery was transformed as they became widely accessible to not just the rich or the royal but almost everyone. Visually there was often no difference between a natural pearl or a cultivated pearl and so the prestige and value of natural pearls dramatically declined.

In 1917 a Pierre Cartiere natural pearl necklace held the value of 1.5 million dollars. It was sold to Daisy Plant in exchange for her entire 53rd Avenue home. 40 years later after the rise in cultured pearls the necklace was sold at auction for just 157k dollars.

Today it is not permitted to dive for wild pearls, so a natural pearl necklace would be of antique provenance and should be sold with certificates of authenticity. They do command a higher price than cultured pearls because of the rarity, although their aesthetic is equal.

The price of cultured pearls is as varied as with any other gemstone. The production is a long and complicated process and the reliance on what is still predominantly a natural process. A larger pearl will take longer to cultivate, and the best pearls are given longer to form more layers of the lustrous nacre giving a deeper lustre and glow. Colour, smoothness, and shape affect the price, as does the type of mollusc it came from. The salt water Akoya pearl will produce far fewer pearls than freshwater mussels. The larger pearls of Tahitian and South Sea oysters command the highest prices.

Not all the oysters or mussels that are seeded will survive and produce pearls and not all of these will meet the standards required for jewellery. The pearls are skilfully harvested by hand, and machines can assist with size sorting, but it requires an experienced eye to match a set of pearls of the same shape, size and lustre.

Pearl Farming in Vietnam

The Future of Pearls

Our love of pearls is unlikely to dwindle, but the most beautiful pearls need just the right environmental conditions and clean pollution free waters. Oysters, like all marine life will be affected by rising sea temperatures. Drought and pollution of rivers will affect the mussels which produce freshwater pearls. This is a concern within the industry, and is not being ignored. Pearl farmers, to keep their livelihood, need to be responsible for keeping their waters clean, and by preventing pollution, cyanide fishing and dynamite fishing.   Many pearl farms are places full of biodiversity and beauty.

The Tiffany & Co. Foundation has funded research into the environmental impact of pearl farming and ways it can improve water quality, positively impact coral reef conservation and reduce overfishing. Jersey Pearl are the only CarbonNeutral® pearl jewellery brand, and sponsor various projects.

Pearls are one of the amazing consequences of mother nature and the elusive beauty produced by the natural world. Pearls have captured the interest of people across the globe throughout the course of human history. Their captivating glow and unique lustre has meant humans have sought to adorn themselves in pearls since their discovery in Ancient times.

This holds true today as pearls are still known to be a timeless accessory taking the form of necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings and more. Browse our beautiful selection of beautiful pearl jewellery and range of Jersey Pearl Jewellery

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