The History Of Natural Saltwater Pearls
The simple and elegant nature of a pearl makes it one of the most enduring of jewels. Throughout history, the natural pearl has always been prominent amongst the wealthy and powerful and at certain periods in time, was made available almost exclusively to Royalty. In many cultures, pearls also represented symbols of purity, perfection and completeness, and were even believed to have medicinal powers.
As far back as 2300 B.C., Chinese records show that pearls were given to Royalty and were considered a prized possession. Ancient Hindu texts from India also repeatedly refer to pearls, stating from one source that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl. In Persia, the kings decorated not only their robes and boots but even their beards were embellished with pearls as well as their horses, and coins show Persian kings with a three-row pearl tiara.
Ancient Romans highly valued pearls as a symbol of prestige. Perhaps the most celebrated historical reference to pearls in Roman history involved a bet between Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his book, Natural History, during a banquet given by the Queen for the Roman leader, she wagered that she could present the most expensive meal known to man. With only a glass of vinegary wine placed in front of her, she removed one of her pearl earrings, worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold, and dropped it into the wine. The pearl dissolved in the acidic substance and she drank it, winning her wager.
The Elizabethan period was known as the ‘Age of the Pearl’ due to their unrivalled status. Under the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) Britain became a world power. A well-known pearl fanatic, a shrewd politician and, of course, a woman, Elizabeth I used pearls as the outward expression of the newly gained power while also satisfying her desire for the beautiful. Her dresses were embroidered with thousands of pearls and on certain occasions she would wear up to seven pearl necklaces, some of which reached down to her knees.
By the 18th and 19th centuries, pearls remained highly fashionable. They were often worn as chokers; and conveyed deep-rooted and intimate messages of love and grief. Pearl jewellery was also associated with childhood, marriage and death. Pearl decorative borders symbolised purity, innocence or humility, while in mourning jewellery, pearls signified tears of sadness.
The 19th century was a period of aristocratic ostentation and grandeur. Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie of France influenced international fashions and shared a passion for pearls and jewels. Magnificent tiaras of rare pearls and diamonds were worn by European aristocracy to dazzle and impress at sumptuous balls and grand occasions.
The 1920s were characterised by informal dress codes and the lavish lifestyles of the elite. Pearl necklaces ranged from the modest choker to the long sautoirs hanging down to the waist. Styles were influenced by the exotic, and by the modernist movement, which allowed women to apply make-up in public, thus the vanity case became a fashionable accessory.
In 18th and 19th century China and India, ostentatious displays of pearls formed an integral part of the regalia of ruling monarchs. In Europe such opulence seemed unimaginable. During this period, formal wear at the Indian and Nepalese Courts was based on Western styles mixed with Eastern splendour. Elaborate pearl embroidery demonstrated the wealth of the owner.In the 1930s, Coco Chanel promoted the fashion for pearls, as did the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, in the 1960s, and both combined cultured and imitation pearls. The screen goddesses of Hollywood movies upheld the glamour of pearls. Elizabeth Taylor preferred splendid jewels with Natural Saltwater Pearls.
At the turn of the 20th century, a period defined by new industrial fortunes and ornate style, pearls were favored by American society figures as well as with Royalty and titled families from Britain to Russia.
Christian symbols appeared in jewellery during the 5th century when the Christian cross became fashionable. By the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, pearls became symbolic of Christ. The creation of the pearl was associated with the Virgin Mary’s miraculous conception of the Christ Child. Its symbolism was of purity and perfection.
Royals and nobles competed for large and beautiful pearls and wore them as a sign of political power and prosperity. Catherine de Medici wore pearls in abundance as an expression of her status as Queen. Her pearls, bequeathed to Mary Queen of Scots, became a symbol of rivalry, as these were sold by Mary’s Scottish opponents to Elizabeth I.
New dress fashions in pastel shades of satin were a perfect backdrop to pearls worn in abundance, featured not only around the neck but also in bodice ornaments. Queen Mary II wore her pearls draped across her décolleté with a diamond. Pearls symbolised virtuous femininity, marital fidelity and fertility, often appearing in bridal portraits.
The natural pearl is formed when an irritant, such as a piece of sand, works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel, or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid called nacre. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed. During the long history of pearls, the principal oyster beds have been in the Persian Gulf in the Basrah region, along the coast of Bahrain and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and also in the Red Sea. Today, the near exhaustion for natural pearl harvesting has resulted in their fnite supply, adding to their allure and to their ever-increasing value. Especially rare to find in large sizes, natural pearls over 10 mm in diameter have become a sought-after treasure.