Pearl History

Pearls, the ‘not so round’ white translucent jewel is the oldest known gem to mankind and boasts of a recorded history dating back to 4000 years.  The year 300 B.C. marks the year, pearls first entered into written history.

All the ancient civilizations of India, Egypt, Rome, Greece and China have a fascinating recorded history of their association with pearls.  Pearls were considered the symbol of purity, chastity and feminine innocence.  They were prized as visible declarations of wealth and power, as harbingers of good fortune, as well as a talisman against the evil spirits.

The Chinese have a recorded history of pearls dating back to 4000 years. XhaoXing, a biographer of the Sung dynasty, records that the ancient Chinese placed a greater premium on pearls, which were used as adornment and also as currency. 

Ancient India shares a fascinating history with pearls.  Pearls are mentioned in the ancient Hindu text the Rig-Veda, also recorded is the legend that the Hindu God Krishna gifted his daughter pearls on her wedding day.  Pearls also had a medicinal value, as can be seen by their usage in Ayurvedic medicines.

Ancient Romans were fascinated with pearls, prized them highly as they contributed significantly to a person’s prestige and power.  A decree was also passed which prohibited the hoi-polloi from donning pearls.  A single pearl, it is said, financed an entire military campaign of a Roman general.  The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra too was consumed by her pearls, literally.  In a wager with Mark Anthony, she made a meal of her 10 million sestereces worth pearl by dissolving it in a goblet of sour wine and drinking it.

The Persian Gulf has an enviable 2700 years history of pearl harvesting and trading.  The sculptures and coins of ancient Persia all provide evidence of a flourishing pearl trade.  In fact the oldest surviving pearl necklace, the Susa necklace belongs to a Persian Queen, it was taken from her sarcophagus and dates back to 2500 years.  The Persian Gulf has been the source of the most famous and ancient pearls in history.  The ancient Greeks obtained their pearls from Persia and coveted them so much that no wedding ceremony was deemed complete without pearls, as pearls were considered the symbols of love.

The Romans carried their fascination with pearls to insatiable limits, when their Empire declined the focus on pearls shifted to European royalty.  The Crusades fueled the pearl trade, and pearls were so much in vogue that the era 1524-1658 is termed as the Pearl Age in Europe.

The discovery of America, led to newer pastures for pearls, and the rivers and lakes yielded their pearls to constant harvesting to satisfy their demand in Europe.  The declining 19th century saw an end to the pearl trade, mainly because of over fishing and pollution.

Types of Pearls

Since Pearls occur naturally in nature, in fresh as well as saltwater, they come in amazing sizes and colors.
South Sea Pearls are generally white and black.  The silver white pearls are fond along the northern coast of Australia and occupy the highest pinnacle among natural pearls due to their unmatched iridescence and beauty.  They are highly prized and exclusive and the most expensive pearls in the world. 

These pearls do not require any artificial treatments to enhance their beauty.  Australian south sea pearls vary in size from 8mm to 20mm and come in differing shapes and colors.   The round and drop shapes apart, the circled, baroque, button and the keshi pearls also occur in colors ranging from the white, silver, pink, golden and blue.

The waters of Philippines and Indonesia also yield the golden and light yellow south sea pearls.
The legendary Black Pearl, and also the other varieties of the South Sea black pearls are found along the waters of Cook Islands, up to Tahiti to the Tuamoto Archipelago and the Gambier Islands in the French Polynesia.

Chinese Freshwater pearls come in a variety of shapes ranging from the oval, round, drop, baroque and button in colors like white, orange and violet.

The northeast of Tokyo yields the Kasumiga pearls that are either light or dark pink.

The famous Akoya pearls are obtained from Southwest Japan and China.  The Akoya ranges in size from 2mm to 10mm and are whitish pink or silver blue.

The atolls and lagoons of the South Pacific yield the Tahiti pearls.  These pearls are 7mm to15mm in size and come in beautiful colors dark and pale gray, black, silver and the rarest color peacock green.

The Mabe pearls are half pearls obtained from the tropical seas of Southeast Asia and the Japanese islands near Okinawa.

Creation of a Pearl and its Physical Properties

The formation of a pearl in its oyster is truly one of the miracles of nature.  A pearl is the result of a defense mechanism of the mollusc to an irritant in its interior.  Molluscan bivalves like clams, oysters, mussels, form a pearl by the secretion of a substance known as Nacre around the irritant which maybe lodged in the mantle of the organism or between the mantle and the shell.

Nacre is composed of a hard organic compound called conchiolin, calcium carbonate and aragonite and calcite.   The Nacre is secreted in layers as in an onion; these layers are thin, translucent and gradually surround the irritant. 

The aragonite in the nacre is perpendicularly aligned to the concentric layers.  This arrangement of concentric and radial is constant and the source of the pearls iridescence and lustre.   The slowly forming pearl gets its color from the conchiolin in the nacre and the water in which the pearl is being formed.  Since the conchiolin is translucent, the aragonite color becomes prominent yielding in a cream or white pearl.  The water and the impurities present in it impart a yellow, gray or pinkish shade to the pearl.  The formation of the pearl by deposits of nacre depends on the species of the mollusc and its shape is determined by the shape of the irritant and movement of the mollusc during pearl formation.

The physical properties of the pearl are:

Since pearls are by nature organic chemicals, they are fairly tough, but easily damaged when they come in contact with acids and over a period of time skin secretions also cause pearls to lose their lustre. Their hardness varies through 3-4 on the Mho’s scale and specific gravity of natural pearls lies between 2.66-2.78, whereas cultured pearls have a specific gravity between 2.72-2.78.  Pearls are slightly grainy in texture and exhibit a sky blue fluorescence under ultra violet radiation.  The unique iridescence and lustre of pearls is due to the reflection and refraction of light from its concentric layers.

Pearls unlike other gems have a long and fascinating association with man; their varied uses include being utilized as currency, jewellery, for medicinal purposes and even in magic.  Pearls rate a mention in all the Holy Scriptures and have entered into literature too. The famous metaphor of casting pearls before swine, which appears in the Bible, is used in popular language even today.  Of all the gems in use by man, only pearls are associated with purity, innocence and love.