History Behind the Most Classic Gemstone - Pearl
The pearl dates back long before written history and is the world’s oldest gem. Original or natural pearls were an expensive form of jewelry. Not everyone could afford them and a jewelry piece made of natural pearls was nothing less than a treasure. But now we see everyone adorning them as accessories as they are in abundance and inexpensive as compared to earlier times. Let us dive deep into its transformation journey and understand how pearl went from being a rare gem to being abundantly available.
Symbolizing Wealth and Power
No one knows who discovered the pearls first, but it is believed that a group of people, a fish-eating tribe, were hunting for food along the coast of India when they discovered saltwater pearls while opening oysters. Now, after thousands of years, the love and admiration of pearls have spread across the globe.
Before the 1900s, pearls were the gem of choice for nobles and rich people who held high stature in society, as natural pearls were available in rarity and at a very high price.
In China, Egypt, and Rome, pearl has significant mentions in their recorded history. In Egypt, the use of pearls came around the 5th century B.C., and it was in the 1st century B.C. when pearls became famous in Rome. Julius Caesar passed a law that only nobles could own a pearl, as it was an ultimate symbol of wealth. Cleopatra invited Marc Antony to show she could host the most expensive dinner in order to prove Rome’s supremacy in wealth and heritage. To prove it, she crushed a pearl and dissolved it in the goblet of wine and gulped it down. Antony, stunned, refused to come to dinner and accepted her win.
Vitellius, a Roman general, is said to have been able to fund an entire military expedition by selling just one of his mother's pearl earrings, according to legend.
Mythology and Religion
There is a pearl reference in Indian mythology as well, and in one of the epics, Lord Krishna discovers the pearls in the sea and plucks one to gift his daughter, Pandaïa for her wedding day.
Pearls were of great importance in the Arab world as well. The gem has been mentioned in Quran multiple times. In describing a paradise, it says: "The stones are pearls and jacinths; the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths, and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable lustre, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls."
Pearl jewelry was said to represent the wearer's purity in ancient China, and in the Dark Ages, knights believed that wearing pearls and precious gemstones on a battlefield would keep them safe from dangers and enemies.
Pearls have been traded since Roman times. And their discovery in Central and South America in the 15th and 16th centuries started a Pearl Age. During the 19th century, the demand for pearls rose as royal women started wearing elaborate pearl jewelry including pearl pendant necklaces, earrings, and pearl bracelets. This dwindled the supply of oysters as well.
The initial and main producer of pearls has been the Persian Gulf, as the major oyster beds lay there. Fresh water rivers and ponds have been the source for Chinese pearls, whereas it has been salt water near the coast for Japanese pearls.
The Origination of Pearl
Every pearl comes from a living organism, which is an exceptional case as every other gemstone comes from the deep earth’s crust. The formation of pearls takes place when an irritant or foreign substance like a parasite or piece of shell enters mistakenly into an oyster's inner body. It secretes a crystalline substance which is known as nacre. It keeps building up around the irritant in layers until a pearl is formed. These are totally natural pearls.
The only way to collect these pearls for to divers to go 100 feet deep into the ocean to fetch pearl oysters. As only one in 10,000 oysters carried pearls, it was a daunting task to find one that carried pearls inside it and also collected oysters would have only three to five quality pearls. This rarity made this gem very expensive. In addition to that, this pursuit was dangerous for the divers too. They had to risk their lives every time they went in search of oysters.
The Birth of Cultured Pearls
It was the path-breaking invention of Kokichi Mikimoto, a Japanese entrepreneur, that brought pearls in abundance. He developed cultured pearls after a decade of experimentation. He created the first one in 1893, by surgically introducing an irritant inside the oyster’s body to encourage it to do the process and create the pearl. The trade in pearls went through a transformation in the 1900s by increasing the supply and lowering the price.
Thanks to Mikimoto’s technique, by 1935, Japan had 350 pearl farms that produced 10 million cultured pearls a year. Some argue that his pearls were not "real". But the scientific study says the cultivated pearls carry the exact properties as those formed naturally in deep sea beds, the only difference was that cultured pearls needed a helping hand to initiate the process.
Development of natural pearls is dependent on clean seas and stable temperatures, but due to pollution and global warming, both of these factors remain invisible. Most of the pearls in the jewelry market today are cultivated and farmed. Mikimoto's Akoya pearls are known for their brilliant luster and rich colors, that range from white, cream, and pink, to silvery pink.
Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls
Original and cultured pearls develop in freshwater and saltwater, and there are different types of pearls depending on which mollusk they come from. Fresh water and salt water pearls are developed through the same process, have almost the same physical and chemical properties, but the only difference is their environment and variety of mollusk.
Saltwater pearls are produced by saltwater mollusks in a saline environment. Cultured saltwater Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls are the three most common types of saltwater pearls. The shape of the saltwater pearl is typically more round, and one shell contains one pearl. Tahitian pearls are also known as black pearls and come in a range of colors from gray to green color. South Sea pearls are the largest white and golden pearls found in Indonesia, Australia, and the Philippines. Akoya pearls are known for their great luster and originate in Japan.
Cultured freshwater pearls are majorly produced in China. As they are available in plenty, you can obtain them at a lower price as compared to saltwater.
In current times, the cultivation of pearls is being affected by climate change and pollution. Switching to a more sustainable lifestyle and supporting organizations that promote environmentally friendly initiatives can ensure the development of pearls for years to come.