There were formerly two pearls, the largest that had been ever seen in the whole world: Cleopatra, the last of the queens of Egypt, was in possession of them both, they having come to her by descent from the kings of the East.[1]

Pearl History

Girl with a Pearl Earring.jpg

The Girl with the Pearl Earring, by Vermeer. 1665

Throughout history pearls have been amongst the most coveted of all adornments, parallel to the big four colored gemstones. Probably more than ruby, emerald, diamond and sapphire (in order of importance), pearls enticed the imagination of our ancestors. Many legends on the origin of pearls, its owners, as well as its magical powers have been speculated on. Perhaps the most famous tale must be the wager between Queen Cleopatra and her lover, Marcus Antonius which took place in the first century BC and recounted by Pliny some 100 years later: Cleopatra baited Antonius with the promise of a meal that was to be the most expensive ever given. Antonius took the bet and on Cleopatra's directions, a moderate banquet was prepared the following day. Her adversary for the day believed he had already won as there was not much out of the ordinary. The cunning queen then ordered a vessel of vinegar to be brought to the table and took off one of her pearl earrings. These were estimated at the time to be worth 60 million sesterces[2] and were the most costly pearls the world had ever seen. She dropped the pearl in the vinegar - upon which it started to dissolve - and drank the beverage. The umpire, senator Marcus Plancus, stopped Cleopatra from sacrificing the other pearl and declared her the victor. The tale does not alas, record the forfeit of the bet.

Most ancient civilizations, from the Chinese to the Aztecs, used pearls as personal adornments. In Europe - specifically in the Roman Empire - pearls became fashionable from 61 BC when Pompey the Great held his victorious parade over the defeat of Mithridates, King of Pontus (present day Turkey on the Black Sea). Amongst the spoils of the war were numerous pearls set in crowns and other artifacts. After the Sack of Rome in the early 5th century by the Visigoths, these treasures were dispersed all over Europe and pearls remained fashionable at the various courts since. From the late middle ages, through the end of the 17th century, we can speak of "the age of pearls". It was mainly the 30 years war (1618-1648) that caused the fashion for the prominent luxury of expensive pearls to be overtaken by a desire for a simpler, less ostentatious ornament [3]. The popularity of pearls had actually begun to wane from around 1450 when faceted gemstones,[4], especially diamonds, started to become available and partially overtook the role of the pearl. This is especially true for the 18th century, when pearl production started to decline and imitations became available. The discovery of the Brazilian diamond mines in the early 1700's finally ended the pearl era. They remained associated though, with the sophisticated taste of old money, particularly in America after the Civil War of 1861-1865, where diamonds were considered the show off stones of the day. Today pearls still carry the connotation of good taste and finesse as diamonds do of wealth.

Although it is inconceivable today that a man would wear strands of pearls, that has not always been the case. One can find many portraits of kings and princes overloaded with this organic material. It is actually difficult to find a royal that has not been portrayed with pearls in official paintings, either as necklaces or embroidered on hats and bodices. The Maharajahs of India were well known to lavishly adorn themselves with this wonder of nature well into the 19th century. The passion for pearls grew to such proportions that many European governments went so far as to issue regulations on who could wear them and when.

Cellini, never short of a strong opinion, didn't think too highly of this popular gem and named them fish bones. Nevertheless, pearls were such an integral part of society during his time that he almost fell out of grace with his patron Cosimo I de Medici over a single strand of them. Cosimo's spouse, Eleonora of Toledo, had her eyes set on the pearls and wanted Cellini to advertise them to her husband in order to receive it as a gift from him. Reluctantly Cellini praised the necklace but the Duke, who knew him well, finally got Cellini to express his true sentiments about the strand - much to the dislike of Eleonora. She finally got her way through an unscrupulous negotiator and it was only due to Cosimo’s affection for Cellini that he was not exiled from Florence, despite Eleonora’s wishes due to the "betrayal".[5]

Eleonora of toledo detail.jpg

Eleonora of Toledo. By Agnolo Bronzino, 1545

Until the middle of the 19th century pearls were either white or cream in color and it was not until approximately 1845, that colored South Seas pearls became available. They did not catch on until a decade later when Empress Eugenie of France brought them into fashion, though white pearls remained decidedly more popular. Although we generally name these pearls from the seas between Japan and Australia "South Sea pearls", there is no South Sea in that area. The correct name should technically be "south seas pearls". Saltwater baroque shaped pearls, named from the Portuguese word for irregular shaped pearl, were used during the Renaissance as bodies of mythological creatures or animals. During the fin-de-siecle[6] and the Edwardian period they came back in high fashion again although finding suitable forms, particularly in larger sizes, was difficult. The Edwardian period is also known as the "white period" due to the extensive use of pearls, colorless diamonds and white metals such as platinum. During this period, although pearl production had increased following the invention of diving regulators in the 1800s, prices greatly increased due to their high demand. Although there has been a good production of pearls throughout the ages, the largest pearls ever found in either salt or fresh water, are all baroque shaped.

Seed pearls, so named for their smallness in size, were popular during the period between 1840 and 1860[7] when they were used to create 3-dimensional jewelery, strung together with very fine horse hair. Complete parures, including tiaras, were crafted this way. Often the pearls were sewn on a mother-of-pearl backing plate. Small half-pearls were produced by either sawing a semi-round pearl in half or by cutting them out of mother-of-pearl shells. In the late 19th century they were used extensively to decorate watch cases and other jewelry. Often these half pearls were placed on small disks of paper to level them out, so care should be taken when cleaning artifacts of this type. The centers of half-pearl creation were the German towns Idar and Oberstein (now named Idar-Oberstein).

1209863014 40-1-1138.jpg

From the Turn of the 20th Century, this Elegant Antique Bracelet is Composed of Tiny Rose Cut Diamonds, Calibre Emeralds and Natural Oriental Pearls Set in Platinum Over 18 Karat Yellow old.
Image Courtesy of Lang Antiques

Formation of Pearls

Pearls are a true wonder of nature and the result of a clever self-defensive mechanism employed by some types of mollusks, which we generally name "pearl oysters". Most natural pearls form when an irritant - such as a parasite - enters the oyster and attacks it. The oyster surrounds the intruder with epithelial cells, forming a sac, and then secrets a mixture of nacre and conchiolin onto it. At that stage the attacker is assumed to have died but the oyster still continues to deposit layers over it, and the pearl continues to grow until the oyster itself dies or it is removed from its body. The conchiolin is an organic material, which acts like a glue, bonding the calcium carbonate layers of nacre. Pearls may also form when an irritant is trapped between the body of the animal and its protective shell, producing a pearl with one flat side, called a "blister" pearl.


William Saville-Kent's portrait as it appears in the frontispiece of The Naturalist in Australia (1897).

By the end of the 19th century several people, independently of each other, were experimenting with the production of round pearls. In particular Mikimoto in Japan and William Saville-Kent in Australia. In the first decade of the 20th century a technique of creating round pearls was patented by two Japanese, Tatsuhei Mise and Tokichi Nishikawa and their method became known as the Mise-Nishikawa method. There are however, strong indications that they may have learned the technique from Saville-Kent.


An old Mikimoto Kōkichi inserts nucleus in a pearl shell.

Mikimoto eventually purchased the rights to the method, perfecting it and achieving great success in marketing cultured pearls. By the 1930s cultured pearls had become so popular that they all but halted the demand for natural pearls in most western countries. Today almost all pearls are cultured with just a fraction of them, mostly found in the East or in antique jewelry, being of all natural formation.

Pearl Care

Pearls are very susceptible to heat and acids, in addition to being relatively soft and should be handled with great care. Interesting experiments in the 19th century established that pearls were very tough however. They placed a pearl on a wooden board and stood on it, instead of breaking, the pearl remained intact and left an indent in the wood. It is not recommended though that one should try to reproduce these findings unless one is willing to sacrifice the gem in the interest of scientific inquiry.

Perfumes, which have existed at least since the 14th century,(Hungary water) have an alcohol base which is known to dissolve a pearl's conchiolin, so care should be taken to wipe the gems clean with a damp cloth after wearing the two together.

Although pearls are accustomed to water, it is not advisable to place strung pearls in a hydrous solution to clean them. The threads may contain contaminates or dyes which may discolor the pearls through capillary action.

Always store pearls in such a way that they are not in contact with sharp or hard objects, such as other jewelry. They are best stored wrapped in an soft, uncolored, clean cloth.

Gemological Information for Pearl

Color: All colors
Crystal Structure Amorphous
Refractive Index:
Durability: May scratch and peel
Hardness: 3.75
Similar Stones: Synthetics, plastics and imitations
Treatments: Bleaching, Dyeing
Country of Origin: Australia, Japan, China, Mexico, South Seas and many other localities

Pearl Care

Ultrasonic Cleaning: Not safe
Steam Cleaning: Not safe
Warm Soapy Water: Safe
Chemical Attack: Avoid (even perfume)
Light Sensitivity: Stable in natural colors
Heat Sensitivity: Unknown


  1. Pliny, IX.35
  2. Kunz, p.10. In 1908 the value would have been USD1,300,000.00
  3. Kunz, p.28
  4. Kunz, p.21
  5. Cellini, chapter LXXXIII and LXXXIV
  6. Kunz, p.30
  7. Kunz, p.390

Sources Consulted

  • Kunz, G.. The Book of the Pearl. The Century Co., New York, NY. 1908
  • Cellini, B. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Translated By John Addington Symonds. 10th edition.
  • Pliny the Elder, National history.

Online G&G Articles on Pearls

Pearl Gemology