Of all the gems nature has given to Man, the Pearl was surely the first to be appreciated and therefore highly prized. Their value was considered beyond price.
Unlike hard-inorganic stones such as Diamond and Rubies which need the mechanical processes of cutting and polishing to bring out their hidden beauty, the natural pearls found by chance in ancient times were already formed and beautiful when the shells were opened.
Throughout the ages historical texts and sacred books have recorded the incredible esteem in which Pearls were held.
Even today museums such as the Victoria and Albert and the Louvre, hold items of adornment and jewellery featuring Pearls made in ancient times.
In Europe, the Roman civilization was so enamoured with Pearls that it was said that one reason Julius Caesar set out to conquer Britain was the hope of finding a new source of Pearls for the empire.
It was also recorded by historian Suetonius that a general by the name of Vitellius covered the cost of an entire military campaign by selling off just a single one of his mothers Pearl earrings.
Caligula-always one for the understated gesture, is said to have decorated one of his horses with a Pearl necklace- just after making it a Consul!
Pearls played a vital role in the relationship between Rome and Egypt in the 1st century B.C. when Marc Antony and his men were amazed by the abundance of Pearls worn by the Egyptian court.
Cleopatra, in an effort by to persuade Rome, via Marc Antony, that Egypt’s wealth and heritage put it above the need for conquest by Roman forces, offered him a wager saying she could throw the most costly dinner in history.
Marc Antony accepted the bet, but was surprised to find his and Cleopatra’s dinner plate empty, whereupon Cleopatra removed one of her large Pearl earrings, crushed it and proceeded to dissolve the resulting powder in a glass of vinegary wine and drank it down. Marc Antony was so amazed that he had to decline his dinner…the other earring!
Cleopatra had proved her point and won the bet.
Contemporary writers put the value of the “meal” at an amount equivalent to $10 million US- an unimaginable sum of money in those times.
In the countries of the Middle-East, particularly those of the Persian Gulf from where most Pearls originated, they were regarded with perhaps even more veneration than in Rome; being regarded as gifts from God.
The Koran contains a description of how, upon entering heaven, a person would be sheltered in a tent made of, and attended to by maidens whose radiance matches that of Pearls.
There are many references to Pearls in the Bible; the most notable being Matthew 7,6. ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet’.
Conveying the meaning ‘Don’t offer things of high value to those who are unable to appreciate them’
With the passage of time, new Oyster beds were found in addition to those of the traditional providers: The Gulf, The Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.
Japan found pearls off its coast, whilst Chinese pearls came from freshwater sources.
Columbus exploration of the New World brought with it new sources of both Seawater and Freshwater Pearls, which were later fully exploited by colonial powers; exporting their harvest back to Europe where they were snapped up by an eager wealthy market.
Spain focused its efforts on Central, South America and the Caribbean where it is claimed they forced slaves to dive for pearls. Panama and Venezuela were notable successes for the Spanish.
The British and French had both discovered native American Indians wearing Pearls and had tracked down their sources and begun to harvest them for themselves.
These Freshwater mussel beds, notably on the Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee rivers, later became the material source for the American button making trade.
Pearl diving and gathering continued in these areas until the early part of the nineteenth century, when over-fishing and pollution caused by industrialization took its toll.
It was in the final years of that century, which saw the Japanese involvement with the Australian Mother of Pearl trade slowly evolve into the pioneering creation of Cultured Pearls under the guidance of Kokichi Mikimoto and others.
The rest as they say…is history.