A Brief History Of Pearls

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Many thousands of years ago, long before written history, human beings probably discovered the first pearl while searching the seashore for food. Throughout history, the pearl, with its warm inner glow and shimmering iridescence has been one of the most highly prized and sought-after gems. The Latin word for pearl means “unique”, which attests to the fact that no two pearls are identical.

Countless references to the pearl can be found in all the religions and mythology of cultures from the earliest times.

Old Arabian, Greek, and Roman legends tell us that the pearl is formed when dewdrops filled with Moonlight fall to the ocean and are swallowed by oysters. The Persians believed the same thing, but they also believed that imperfections found in pearls were due to thunder in the sky. Chinese myths tell of pearls falling from the sky when dragons fight, as ancient Japanese believed that pearls were created from the tears of mythical creatures, such as mermaids or nymphs.

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”: to convince Rome that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth that put it above conquest, Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony she could give the most expensive dinner in history. 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.

During the Dark Ages, while fair maidens of nobility cherished delicate pearl necklaces, gallant knights often wore pearls into battle. They believed the magic of these lustrous gems would protect them from harm.

The Renaissance saw the royal courts of Europe awash in pearls. Because pearls were so highly regarded, a number of European countries actually passed laws forbidding anyone but the nobility to wear them.

In 1916, famed French jeweler Jacques Cartier bought his landmark store on New York’s famous Fifth Avenue – by trading two pearl necklaces for the valuable property.

Detail of Cleopatra  in Tiepolo's Banquet of Cleopatra.

When Almost all other gemstones are formed by mineral deposits that must be mined, cut, and polished to reveal their sparkling beauty, the pearl is offered to man in all its splendor, beautiful as they are – straight out of the water.

There is nothing else to do but to hold it in the hollow of the hand and open the eyes wide. It is only normal that such a prodigy raised many questions among our ancestors who palliated their lack of scientific precision with an innate sense of poetry.

Surealisme and Fantasy digital painting Christian Schloe Artwork
Cleopatra VII (69-30 B), Queen of Egypt, Dissolving Pearls in Wine, 1866

The creation of a pearl is a fascinating process that requires a true patience and care. It is the only gem created by living creatures, rocked gently by the wave of time, ready to be worn and admired immediately out of the water, creating its own splendor.

Fred Appleyard
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