The Rich History of Pearls
Since ancient times, the pearl has been a symbol of unblemished perfection. It is the oldest known gem, and for centuries it was considered the most valuable. A fragment of the oldest known pearl jewelry, found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC, is displayed in the Louvre in Paris. To the ancients, pearls were a symbol of the moon and had magical powers. In classical Rome, only persons above a certain rank were allowed to wear pearl jewelry. The Latin word for pearl literally means "unique", attesting to the fact that no two pearls are identical.
How Pearls are Formed In Oysters
The birth of a pearl is truly a miraculous event. Unlike gemstones or precious metals that must be mined from the earth, pearls are grown by live oysters far below the surface of the sea. Gemstones must be cut and polished to bring out their beauty. But pearls need no such treatment to reveal their loveliness. They are born from oysters complete -- with a shimmering iridescence, lustre and soft inner glow unlike any other gem on earth.
A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a parasite or piece of shell that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster's soft inner body where it cannot be expelled. To ease this irritant, the oyster's body takes defensive action. The oyster begins to secrete a smooth, hard crystalline substance around the irritant in order to protect itself. This substance is called "nacre." As long as the irritant remains within its body, the oyster will continue to secrete nacre around it, layer upon layer. Over time, the irritant will be completely encased by the silky crystalline coatings. And the result, ultimately, is the lovely and lustrous gem called a pearl.
How something so wondrous emerges from an oyster's way of protecting itself is one of nature's loveliest surprises. For the nacre is not just a soothing substance. It is composed of microscopic crystals of calcium carbonate, aligned perfectly with one another, so that light passing along the axis of one crystal is reflected and refracted by another to produce a rainbow of light and color.
Pearls have been considered ideal wedding gifts because they symbolize purity and innocence. In the Hindu religion, the presentation of an undrilled pearl and its piercing has formed part of the marriage ceremony.
In the romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian), margarita means pearl. The word pearl appeared in the English language in the fourteenth century. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, pearls were very fashionable in Europe as personal ornaments. The clothing of both men and women were embroidered with them.
In the Americas, both the Incas and Aztecs prized pearls for their beauty and magical powers. Spanish explorers of the New World found the natives in possession of rich pearl fisheries. For many years, the New World was best known in European cities like Seville and Cadiz as the land where pearls came from.
Most European countries in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had laws regarding who could and could not wear pearls. Teachers and lawyers, for example, could not wear fringes or chains with pearls.
Native Americans of the Atlantic Coastal areas and the Mississippi River Basin were the first to collect and use U.S. freshwater mussel pearls and shells. Pearl pendants and ear pendants were worn by both sexes and both pearl and shell were used for decorative purposes on articles of clothing. Some of the tribes used pearls as tributes, reportedly Powhattan (Pocahontas' father) had large stores of pearls received as tribute. Additionally, armlets, pendants, and gaming pieces were made from mussel shell.
Throughout the ages, humans have been enchanted by pearls and the shells of the mollusks that produce them. For example, archaeological evidence indicates that almost 6,000 years ago in the Persian Gulf region, people were sometimes buried with a pierced pearl resting in the right hand.
As ancient trade routes gradually expanded and societies developed across Asia and Europe, pearls became important symbols of wealth, status and religious belief. Some peoples, including the ancient Sumerians, pre-Columbian Americans and Pacific islanders, placed an even higher value on the larger and more easily obtained mother-of-pearl shells. Still a source of widespread fascination, pearls are now admired and worn by more people than ever before.