The History of the Pearl

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Pearl jewelryWhen we think of pearls we quite naturally think of the ocean, since that is where the pearl originates. Since the dawn of time, mankind has held the seas in great awe, seeing them as another, separate world, the sometimes dark and often mysterious home of amazing creatures both great and small. The pearl is truly the crown jewel of this ocean kingdom, and has been revered as such since the earliest recorded times.

Natural pearls are produced by two groups of “molluscan bivalves,” or clams, one family of which lives in the sea. These are the pearl oysters. A second, very different group of bivalves lives in freshwater. These are the freshwater pearl mussels.

“Natural” pearls are formed without any human interference or aid, in the wild, and are very rare, exceedingly difficult to find and, thus, prohibitively expensive. “Cultured” pearls, on the other hand, are mass-produced on pearl farms. The vast majority of pearls used in jewelry today are cultured pearls.

The pearl is one of the oldest gems used by humans, and is mentioned many times in history as one of the most valuable and sought after stones in every part of the world. In ancient Roman times, only certain individuals that held high ranks in society were allowed to wear jewelry with pearls. In 13th and 14th centuries the pearl was very popular among the upper classes in Europe. Both men and women wore pearls that were sewn into their clothing, which in their estimation made the rarest and most perfect form of fashion statement.

The Incas and the Aztecs both marveled at the pearl’s beauty and lustrous while Native Americans prized freshwater pearls and often harvested them from the lakes and rivers. One legend tells of a Native American princess who presented explorer Hernando de Soto with many gifts that included freshwater pearls. Pearls have been valued by the elites of every society that has been privileged to find them, and in lands where they did not occur naturally, they were considered the rarest of riches.

Pearls have also been crushed and used in cosmetics, paint and even medicine. Traditional Chinese medicine recommends pearl powder for a variety of internal and external conditions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the powder for medicinal use in the U.S., but it is still an ingredient in various skin treatments and claims a dedicated following both here and abroad.

Pearls have captured the hearts of people for thousands of years. Perhaps the pearl does harbor some kind of magic, as it certainly seems to give people the feeling of being a part of the timeless history that it holds in its radiant globe. No one truly knows what it is about the pearl that seems to ignite and inspire the moods of those who wear them, but whatever it is, it has kept people intrigued and coming back for more. The pearl may in fact be the most valued gem of all time, esteemed far beyond its “dollar value” and treasured, around the world and throughout the ages, as a priceless gift of nature.