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What's the Fascination with these Little Round Balls of Oyster Secretion?

Updated on September 20, 2016

The fascination with the pearl

Girl with the Pearl Earring by Vermeer

One of the best loved paintings in the world, yet shrouded in such mystery.
One of the best loved paintings in the world, yet shrouded in such mystery.

The pearl’s attraction is unlike that of any other gem.

Whether complementing a high couture evening gown or one of a kind wedding dress, wearing a string of pearls can impart the person with a certain honest elegance that brings respect and admiration. People like pearls for many reasons, be their beauty, the iridescence that is emanated, or even their personality. It is hard to note down the pearl’s intrinsic qualities into words, none-the-less people have tried.

What is the pearl?

The pearl is born inside the shells of special type of clams. The best known pearl is the nacreous pearl. It is produced by two types of clams or oysters. A pearl is made from layers of nacre. The oyster produces nacre and is deposited around any foreign object that becomes lodged in them. The thicker the nacre, the more valuable the pearl is.

The Hope Pearl

The Hope Pearl
The Hope Pearl

The most famous pearl - the Hope Pearl

One of the largest saltwater pearls still in existence is the Hope Pearl, first acquired by Henry Philip Hope in the 19th century:

  • two inches long
  • varies between 3 1/4 and 4 1/2 inches in circumference
  • on display at the British Museum of Natural History.

The Author's own rope of pearls

Rope necklace of cream pearls each pearl measuring roughly 11-12 mm...total length of 4 feet
Rope necklace of cream pearls each pearl measuring roughly 11-12 mm...total length of 4 feet | Source

Coco Chanel once said that women need "ropes and ropes of pearls."

Before the rise of diamonds, suites of pearls were the traditional gift to brides, particularly in America where the fashion for pearls lasted long after it had waned in Europe.

This prolonged taste is due to the discovery of domestic supplies of freshwater pearls in the Mid Atlantic and Midwest in the nineteenth century.

Pearls, which are a symbol of tears, happiness, and purity, were deemed a demure and appropriate gift to young brides.

Seed pearl suites consisted of tiny pearls strung onto mother-of-pearl plaques and often featured rosette and flower designs.

Early seed pearl suites were often set with colored stones or foil-backed pastes, while later suites are made entirely of pearls and tend to be larger and more elaborate.

The Author's jade and pearl bracelet

Jade bracelet with enhanced green pearl, surrounded by cubic zirconias.   Many cultures, including the Irish, see the color green as a symbol of good luck.
Jade bracelet with enhanced green pearl, surrounded by cubic zirconias. Many cultures, including the Irish, see the color green as a symbol of good luck. | Source

Ancient Stories surrounding the pearl

Throughout history, pearls have held a unique presence within the wealthy and powerful, and were once considered an exclusive privilege for royalty. Many myths also surround the pearl:

  • The pearl was the favored gem of the wealthy during the Roman Empire. Roman women wore pearls to bed so they could be reminded of their wealth immediately upon waking up.
  • A law in 1612 drawn up by the Duke of Saxony prohibited the wearing of pearls by nobility, professors, doctors or their wives in an effort to further distinguish royal appearance.
  • Its enchantment goes back to ancient times, more than 6,000 years.
  • American Indians also used freshwater pearls from the Mississippi River as decorations and jewelry.
  • The pearl has powers of love, money and good luck.
  • The Romans wore pearls to get protections from the gods.
  • The Chinese believe that pearls fell from fighting dragons in the clouds.

Queen Elizabeth I in pearls

Symbolism is rife in this famous image of Queen Elizabeth I.  Pearls - symbolic of purity - decorate the queen's head and gown.
Symbolism is rife in this famous image of Queen Elizabeth I. Pearls - symbolic of purity - decorate the queen's head and gown.

Rising appreciation of the pearl

The use and appreciation of pearls first spread to ancient Egypt after the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C.

Knowledge of the use and appreciation of pearls was acquired by the Greeks from Persia and Egypt after Alexander the Great captured the Persian empire between 334 and 331 B.C.

Knowledge of the use and appreciation of pearls spread from the Greeks to the Romans during the 1st-century B.C.

The appreciation of pearls reach unprecedented levels in the Roman empire.


Segment of a necklace with natural pearls, emerald and gold from the Roman Empire.

Segment of a necklace Natural pearls, emerald, gold Roman Empire, A.D. 100-200 The British Museum, London GR
Segment of a necklace Natural pearls, emerald, gold Roman Empire, A.D. 100-200 The British Museum, London GR | Source

Roman Empire and the pearl

Jewelry recovered from Roman Empire sites reveals a taste for combining pearls with emeralds or emerald plasma (chalcedony) and gold. Jewelry fashions at this time were consistent throughout the far-flung Empire.

HM Queen Maxima wearing The Wurttemberg Ornate Pearl Tiara

HM Queen Maxima wearing The Wurttemberg Ornate Pearl Tiara, pearl and diamond earrings.
HM Queen Maxima wearing The Wurttemberg Ornate Pearl Tiara, pearl and diamond earrings.

Pearls, the Persian Gulf, rise of the oil industry and decline of the pearl industry

Historically, the world's best pearls came from the Persian Gulf, especially around what is now Bahrain.

The pearls of the Persian Gulf were:

  • natural created
  • collected by breath-hold divers
  • had a special luster probably derived from the unique mixture of sweet and salt water around the island.

Unfortunately, The natural pearl industry of the Persian Gulf ended abruptly in the early 1930's with the discovery of large deposits of oil.

Those who once dove for pearls sought prosperity in the economic boom ushered in by the oil industry.

The water pollution resulting from spilled oil and indiscriminate over-fishing of oysters essentially ruined the once pristine pearl producing waters of the Gulf.

Today, pearl diving is practiced only as a hobby. Still, Bahrain remains one of the foremost trading centers for high quality pearls. In fact, cultured pearls are banned from the Bahrain pearl market, in an effort to preserve the location's heritage.

Raja Savant Singh and Bani Thani 1780

Raja Savant Singh and Bani Thani. 1780. Courtesy Spink and Sons Ltd. London. Kishengarh miniature painting, characterized by exaggerated profiles. Both with traditional Mughal-Rajput-style ornaments consisting of pearls, emeralds and rubies.
Raja Savant Singh and Bani Thani. 1780. Courtesy Spink and Sons Ltd. London. Kishengarh miniature painting, characterized by exaggerated profiles. Both with traditional Mughal-Rajput-style ornaments consisting of pearls, emeralds and rubies.

The Flapper and the pearl

Flappers of the 1920s and their rope of pearls
Flappers of the 1920s and their rope of pearls
The author's only set of imitation pearls, a recent gift
The author's only set of imitation pearls, a recent gift

There are 3 general types of pearls.

There are essentially three types of pearls:

  • natural
  • cultured
  • imitation

A natural pearl forms 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 to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed.

A cultured pearl is formed when man, instead of nature, implants the irritant, which could be a bead or piece of shell, in the oyster or mollusk. The art of culturing pearls was invented in Japan in 1893 by a man named Kokichi Mikimoto.

There are two kinds of cultured pearls:

  1. saltwater pearls from the Akoya oyster, more experience than freshwater
  2. freshwater pearls from a freshwater mussel.

The majority of pearls sold today are cultured pearls.

Imitation pearls are a different story altogether. In most cases, a glass bead is dipped into a solution made from fish scales. This coating is thin and may eventually wear off. One can usually tell an imitation by biting on it. Fake pearls glide across your teeth, while the layers of nacre on real pearls feel gritty, like sand.

Queen Elizabeth II and her pearls

Queen Elizabeth, as a young Queen, loved her pearls.
Queen Elizabeth, as a young Queen, loved her pearls.
Queen Elizabeth II still loves her pearls.
Queen Elizabeth II still loves her pearls.
Birk's Black Tahitian double row cultured pearl necklace
Birk's Black Tahitian double row cultured pearl necklace

Where do pearls come from?

The largest stock of natural pearls probably resides in India. Ironically, much of India's stock of natural pearls came originally from Bahrain. Unlike Bahrain, which has essentially lost its pearl resource, traditional pearl fishing is still practiced on a small scale in India.

Like I said before, the art of culturing pearls was invented in Japan in 1893 by a man named Kokichi Mikimoto. To this day, the Japanese are considered the foremost experts in seeding oysters and the Mikimoto family continues to be one of the largest pearl producing empires.

Interestingly, one of the first places to begin farming cultured pearls outside of Japan was near the Gulf of California in Mexico. Unfortunately, Mexican pearls disappeared from the international markets when overfishing of natural pearl oyster banks took its toll and the Mexican government had to impose a No- Fishing law in the late 1940's. Mexico is today attempting to return to the pearl market with cultured half-pearls (meaning they are only pearl slices or hemispheres, not round).

Pearls predominately come from

  • Japan
  • Australia
  • Indonesia
  • Myanmar
  • China
  • India
  • Philippines
  • Tahiti

Japan however, controls roughly 80% of the world pearl market, with Australia and China coming in second and third, respectively.

The South Sea waters around Australia, Indonesia, and Myanmar are renowned for their large, white pearls.

Japan's pearls are highly valued for their lustrous character.

The Author's favorite pearl necklaces

Black multi-layers floating pearl necklace
Black multi-layers floating pearl necklace | Source
Pink multi-layers floating pearl necklace
Pink multi-layers floating pearl necklace | Source

Jewelry made from pearls is considered organic jewelry.

Pearls are organic. They need to be taken care of on a regular basis. Unlike many other gems, pearls are susceptible to damage, so some basic tips need to be considered so that they can keep their pearl luster and beauty.

  • Put on your ring or any pearl jewelry AFTER putting on makeup or perfume.
  • Take off your ring before using any lotion.
  • Take off your pearl necklace or other pearl jewelry before taking a shower.
  • Never pull your ring by the pearl itself.
  • Take off your ring when working with anything messy, such as clay, or cooking.
  • Do not keep your pearl jewelry in high humidity areas, such as the bathroom.
  • Do not let your pearl jewelry rub against other jewelry in storage.
  • Wipe your peals with a soft damp cloth to remove dirt and oil.
  • When using jewelry cleaner, make sure it is rated for pearls.

Empress Michiko of Japan wears Akoya pearls

Empress Michiko of Japan wears Akoya pearls
Empress Michiko of Japan wears Akoya pearls

Reverence for pearls worldwide

No matter the origin, a reverence for pearls spread throughout the world over the ensuing millennia. India's sacred books and epic tales abound with pearl references. One legend has the Hindu god Krishna discovering pearls when he plucks the first one from the sea and presents it to his daughter Pandaí¯a on her wedding day. China's long recorded history also provides ample evidence of the importance of pearls. In the Shu King, a 23rd-century B.C. book, the scribe sniffs that as tribute, a lesser king sent "strings of pearls not quite round."

Japanese vintage pearls

This Japanese vintage cultured pearl and jade double strand necklace would date to the early side of the 20th century between 1920's and 1952, when this silver marked was used.
This Japanese vintage cultured pearl and jade double strand necklace would date to the early side of the 20th century between 1920's and 1952, when this silver marked was used.

Important characteristics of the pearl

Pearls are judged according to:

  • luster
  • color
  • size
  • grade
  • symmetry

Pearl luster

The most famous characteristic of a pearl is their luster.

It is a special intense deep shine. When light is reflected off of the tiny crystals embedded in pearl’s nacre surface, it creates a distinct look.

Another piece from the Author's collection

Black pearl necklace with tanzanite set in white gold
Black pearl necklace with tanzanite set in white gold | Source

A few items from the Author's pearl collection

Black seed pearl necklace and bracelet
Black seed pearl necklace and bracelet | Source
White pearls and citrine necklace.  Beside it are a pearl stud, a pearl hoop earring, as well as a Mabe pearl ring.
White pearls and citrine necklace. Beside it are a pearl stud, a pearl hoop earring, as well as a Mabe pearl ring. | Source
Enhanced irregular sea-blue pearls with aquamarine
Enhanced irregular sea-blue pearls with aquamarine | Source

Pearl color

Contrary to popular belief, pearls are not just black or white.

The body colors of a pearl can be

  • white
  • cream
  • yellow
  • pink
  • silver
  • black

Pearls can also have secondary colors or overtones, which cause iridescence when light hits their surface.

Pearl symmetry and shape

Pearls are not just round in shape.

Pearls are found in eight shapes:

  • round
  • semi-round
  • button
  • drop
  • pear
  • oval
  • baroque
  • circled

Pearls that are perfectly round are the rarest and most valuable.

Pearl sizing chart

Pearl sizing chart
Pearl sizing chart | Source

Gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass and quartz ring dating between 500 and 700 A.D.

Date:	between 500 and 700 Medium:	Gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz Location:	The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 302
Date: between 500 and 700 Medium: Gold, silver, pearls, amethyst, sapphire, glass, quartz Location: The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 302

Highest price paid for a cultured pearl necklace

The world record for the highest price paid for a cultured pearl necklace was $2.3 million at Sotheby's in 1992. The 17-inch strand had 23 pearls with diameters ranging from 16 to 20mm with a bead-shaped platinum clasp with 60 round diamonds.

I really tried to find an image of this necklace but was not successful.

Gold and pearls earring dating between the 6th and 7th century

Date:	Between 6th and 7th century Medium:	Gold, pearls Location:	The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 302
Date: Between 6th and 7th century Medium: Gold, pearls Location: The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 302

Anne Boleyn and her famous pearl necklace

Anne Boleyn in her famous pearl necklace
Anne Boleyn in her famous pearl necklace

Anne Boleyn's pearls

Anne Boleyn's Pearls refer to a signature piece of jewelry worn by the 16th-century Queen of England as seen in her famous portrait, consisting of a single strand of pearls with a gold "B" pendant hanging from the center, and three tear-drop pearls suspended from under the letter "B." The queen is seen wearing this pearl necklace in most of her portraits painted during this period. During her short period of rule that lasted from 1533 to 1536, she presided over a magnificent court, renowned for its extravagance, with large sums of money being spent on gowns, jewels, head-dresses, ostrich- feather fans, riding equipment, furniture and upholstery, to maintain the ostentatious life-style required by her status. The wearing of pearl-studded gowns became fashionable during this period and reached a climax during the period of rule of Anne Boleyn's daughter Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), who is reported to have owned over 3,000 pearl embroidered dresses.

Cleopatra's banquet

The most celebrated banquet in literature

Pearls, in fact, played the pivotal role at the most celebrated banquet in literature. Ancient legend tell the story of a bet that Cleopatra made with Marc Antony.

To convince Rome that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth that put it above conquest, Cleopatra made a bet with Marc Antony that she could give the most expensive dinner in history. Marc Antony reclined as the queen sat with an empty plate and a goblet of what was thought to be wine or most likely vinegar. She crushed one large pearl of a pair of earrings, dissolved it in the liquid, then drank it down. Marc Antony admitted she had won.

Pliny, the world's first gemologist, writes in his famous Natural History that the two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000 ounces of fine silver ($9,375,000 with silver at $5/ounce).

Pearls (mostly from the Persian Gulf) were so valuable in ancient times that Roman general Vitellus paid for an entire military campaign by selling one of his mother's pearls. Pliny is the source of that tale.

Segment of a necklace Natural pearls, emerald, gold Roman Empire, A.D. 100-200 The British Museum, London GR 1872
Segment of a necklace Natural pearls, emerald, gold Roman Empire, A.D. 100-200 The British Museum, London GR 1872 | Source

Pearls of antiquity

Jewelry recovered from Roman Empire sites reveals a taste for combining pearls with emeralds or emerald plasma (chalcedony) and gold. Jewelry fashions at this time were consistent throughout the far-flung Empire.

The Kiani Crown. Coronation crown, Iranian Crown Jewels. Used during the Qajar Dynasty.

Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar wearing his pearl Kiani crown. He was the 5th Shah of Qajar Dynasty and ruled between 1896-1907. Image: Unknown, Via Wikiedia
Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar wearing his pearl Kiani crown. He was the 5th Shah of Qajar Dynasty and ruled between 1896-1907. Image: Unknown, Via Wikiedia

The Kiani Crown. Coronation crown, Iranian Crown Jewels. Used during the Qajar Dynasty.

The Kiani Crown was used during the Qajar dynasty. Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, had his own crown designed but the Kiani crown was present during his coronation. The crown itself is made of red velvet which has thousands of gems set onto it. Fathali Shah is often shown in paintings wearing a similar crown.

The Kiani crown has about:

  • 1800 pearls sown onto it, each from 7 to 9 mm. in diameter
  • approximately 300 emeralds set on the crown, the largest of which is about 80 cts
  • about 1800 rubies and spinels on the crown, the largest of which is 120 cts.
  • the largest diamond is 23 cts.

The total height of the crown is 32 cm. without the aigrette, and the total width is 19.5 cm.

My Grandmother and pearl cream

Before jewelers learned to cut gems, the pearl was of greater value than the diamond.

In the Orient, pearls were ground into powders to cure anything from heart disease to epilepsy, with possible aphrodisiac uses as well.

I remember when I was growing up, my grandmother used a cream made from crushed pearls.

Pearl Cream commercial from the 1980s

After Cleopatra dropped one of her famous pearls into a vinegar like liquid, and then drank it, we all want to know...DO pearls dissolve in vinegar?

Want to know more about pearls?

The simplicity of the pearl makes it one of the most enduring of jewels.

Despite the ubiquitous and enduring appeal of the pearl, there are several organizations that fund pearl awareness and promotional programs geared toward informing consumers about the myriad variety of pearls and their appeal as jewelry pieces. These organization include:

  • World Pearl organization
  • Cultured Pearl Association
  • Japan Pearl Promotion Society
  • Australia’s Licensed Pearl Producers

© 2016 Gina Welds Hulse

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    • Gina Welds-Hulse profile image
      Author

      Gina Welds Hulse 20 months ago from Rockledge, Florida

      Thanks for stopping by, Venkatachari. I will have to look into Hyderabad city for some pearls, to add to my collection.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 20 months ago from Hyderabad, India

      This is an interesting and a well researched article. You have mentioned many amazing facts about the pearls.

      We always used to buy pearls here and as you mentioned, India is the largest habitat for pearls. But, most of the precious pearls and diamonds were lost during the reign of British rulers. Hyderabad city, where I am living presently is very famous for its quality pearls since old times.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 20 months ago from london

      Me again. I can see why this Hub was chosen by the Moderators. I have also looked at the forum thread and you have been given much advice. So little from me here. Why don't you separate one video from another with a poll in between?

      This Hub carries its own spirit and many will benefit from it. You have many pics now, but some lack glamour. Didn't Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly wear Pearls? Ok. I'll just go over the English now. I doubt I'll find anything of note. You're an excellent writer. Much Love.

    • Gina Welds-Hulse profile image
      Author

      Gina Welds Hulse 21 months ago from Rockledge, Florida

      I always welcome your wisdom, and your feedback, Manatita. I am currently working on a hub about the "pearls of wisdom" that I have learned from the pearl. As I was working on this hub, I realized just how much the pearl was "speaking" to me, and became so vividly aware of the struggle the oyster endures, yet creates something of beauty from its struggle...a lesson that resonates with me.

      You are right...we tend to forget the inner beauty that the pearl possesses...that translucent beauty that shines from within.

      Thank you for your kind words! Much love.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 21 months ago from london

      Well, Gina.

      You seem to give so much to some of your Hubs.... more than so much! You've covered the aspects of the Pearl really well, even how to care for them!

      I tend to think of then as elegant; full of lustre; poise; charm; beauty...stateliness, regal ...all of which are either captured in your pics or words. You left one thing out through... the inner beauty, Light... sweetness ... my Gina, you are a real or authentic Pearl. Higher Blessings!

    working