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Woman with Pearls
Pearls have been treasured since antiquity. They have been revered for their iridescence, their radiance, their luster, and elegant beauty. People have crushed pearls into their makeup, ingested them as medicine, and worn them as protective amulets. Dating back to Roman times, pearls have been considered to be symbols of wealth, class, and status. Above all, they are beloved as adornments.
In this section, we invite you to immerse yourself in pearls - the legends and myths, their extraordinary place in history and their ethereal appeal - an appeal which remains as powerful today as it was when pearl divers first risked the dangers of the deep.

 


Pearls in Ancient History

Pearls have been prized for thousands of years. Their mysterious beauty is matched by the mystery of their provenance in ancient times. As pearls were traded through trade routes of the ancient world now lost in the mists of time, the origins of some of the most important pearls in history remain uncertain.

Unlike freshwater pearls, oceanic (saltwater) pearls have properties from the sea that preserve their beauty for generations. Freshwater pearls tend to become chalky or milky over a relatively short time. And unlike their freshwater cousins, oceanic pearls are valued for their regular shape and superior size. But the factor in history that made oceanic pearls the most valued of all was their rarity. Early pearl fishers risked the many dangers of the deep to dive for the precious gems.

Today, wars may no longer be waged over pearl beds, but just as in ancient times, divers still face the perils of the deep in the quest for the perfect pearl.

In China, where pearl oysters have been gathered for thousands of years in freshwater rivers and the southern coasts, the character for 'pearl' appears for the first time in a dictionary written in 1000 BC.

The Old Testament of the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran and the Indian epic Mahabharata all praise the purity and perfect beauty of pearls.

Since ancient times, three pearl regions of the Orient have been famed for their fertility:
- the Gulf of Mannar (between Ceylon and South India)
- the Persian Gulf
- the Red Sea

The Gulf of Mannar

The pearl beds of the Gulf of Mannar are mentioned in written records as early as the 6th century BC. For centuries, royal houses and warlords from India, Persia and Arabia fought to rule over the pearl beds and their prestigious bounty. On his extraordinary journeys of discovery, Marco Polo visited the Gulf in 1294, when up to 500 ships and boats would come at harvest season, carrying divers, merchants and adventurers, all in search of their fortune. Their levy was one tenth of their catch, payable to the king.

In 1510 when the Portuguese conquered the region, a new era of European colonization began. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and, finally, in the late 18th century, India was claimed by the British Empire.

The Persian Gulf

Until the discovery of oil and right into the 20th century, pearls were the main source of income for the entire gulf region for centuries. As recently as 1938, around 20% of the region's population earned their livelihood through pearls.

Their rule lasted for a century before the Persians regained control. Pearls were traded mostly in the markets of Bahrain and Hormuz before the treasures were shipped by Indian merchants to the major pearl markets of Bombay.

Unlike South Sea pearls, the pearls from Persian Gulf oysters were tiny, generally from 2mm to 5mm in size, but sometimes reaching 10mm. They were often yellowish or brownish in color. As the Gulf was a major source of pearls in the ancient world it is easy to understand why South Sea pearls when they occasionally emerged through ancient trade routes became so highly prized.

The Red Sea

The third of the major pearl beds of the ancient world was famed for its pearls long before the birth of Christ. As early as the second millennium BC, the seafaring Phoenicians were trading as far away as India and first brought pearls home to the Mediterranean. The Greeks were captivated by the gems, adorning both the statues of their deities and themselves with the jewels.

The campaigns of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) opened trade routes between the known world and the orient, and the pearl trade flourished. With the unprecedented expansion of the Roman Empire, the pearl beds of the Red Sea came under the control of the Romans after the fall of Alexandria in 30 BC. The Romans developed what can only be described as an obsession for pearls and during the 500 years of their empire, more pearls were traded and hoarded than in any other period of world history.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the fashion for pearls declined over the centuries. Roman riches were keenly plundered and hoarded by Goths and Vandals, with many treasures later turning up under the Franks who promoted the influence of the Christian Holy Church.

Pearls from the New World

The political stability and economic growth that enabled the Renaissance in Europe also led to a new age in pearls. Art and culture were no longer so strictly controlled by the church and pearls once again became a favorite fashion luxury. Venice and Genoa were famed for their pearl markets.

In addition to pearls so keenly traded from the Orient, freshwater pearls were also discovered in many areas of Europe and can still be seen on church vessels and crown jewels that survive from that period.

The most famous pearl of this time is La Peregrina, The Pilgrim, which was owned by Phillip II of Spain. It was believed to have bought the freedom of the slave who discovered the gem in the Gulf of Panama. Today, La Peregrina is owned by Elizabeth Taylor. A gift from Richard Burton, through the centuries its owners have included Queen Mary Tudor and Napoleon Bonaparte.

elizabeth 1st of england

Elizabeth Taylor wearing La Peregrina
 

 
   


Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) amassed a wealth of pearls to rival the lavish collections of the Persian princes and Indian Maharajahs. She always wore at least seven ropes of pearls - the longest reaching her knees - and owned more than 3000 lavish gowns embroidered with pearls.

The fashion for pearls spread among the wealthier middle class throughout Europe and in many countries, including England, France, Germany and Italy. Pearl laws were passed aiming to curb the inflationary demand on pearl prices and the outflow of gold.

The passion for pearls continued to grow unabated and through the Baroque age, the Rococo period and the Napoleonic age became firmly established as an essential accessory in any wealthy and fashionable woman's wardrobe.

Around 1845, French explorers returned to Europe with pearls from the South Sea, some dark in color and larger than any pearls previously seen. Eugie, Empress of France, and wife of Napoleon, wore these dark pearls frequently, leading yet another fashion for pearls.

In terms of quality, size and quantity, their discovery led to an unprecedented era of pearls through the Victorian era in Europe. South Sea pearls were a popular highlight of the World Exhibition of Paris in 1900.

Around this same time in Japan, Kokichi Mikimoto was having his first success in producing cultured pearls. Its success has influenced the history of pearls to this day.



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