History of Pearls

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

Long before diamonds and gold, pearls have been treasured by royalty and nobility. Thanks to the pearl jewelry (on display at the Louvre in Paris) found around the cervical vertebrae (neck) of a Persian princess dating back to 420 BC. We now know that these natural gemstones have been coveted for many centuries.

Used as currency by the Persians, given as gifts to royalty as early as 2200 BC and even considered as the ultimate status symbol in Rome. So much so that in the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar passed harsh laws limiting the wearing of pearls only to the upper classes.

Pearls have been a trade commodity since Roman times, the discovery of pearls in South America in the 16th century led to the Pearl Age. With a high demand for pearls in Europe, where nobility and royalty wore ropes of pearl necklaces, earrings, and brooches. The demand for pearl jewelry became so high that oyster supplies began to deplete, and the price began to rise.

Before the modern machinery of the 20th century, the only way of collecting pearls was through diving to depths of up to 30 meters to retrieve the oysters. A very dangerous task that carried a limited chance of success, 1000 oysters would only yield 2 or 3 quality pearls. Freshwater mollusks living in rivers were easier to harvest, but by now, these pearl beds were reserved for royalty only.

With such a long and ancient history, it is no wonder that, over time, the pearl has become shrouded in myth and legend.

Today, becoming the owner of your own natural gems is far easier, however, with the rise in sea temperatures and pollution, the cultivation of pearls is becoming difficult. Molluscs can not produce a pearl of good quality in bad conditions. One can only hope that mankind’s ignorance does not destroy what has been held so precious to us for so long.

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Eriko's pearls, History of pearls, March 2020, Malta

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