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An Exhaustive Guide to Pearls: More Than You Ever Wanted to Know


The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Pearls, also known as the Queen of Gems. They're beautiful, right? They're prized for their luster, shape and silky surface. They're renowned for their elegance, refinement, so called "religious virtue", and glamour. In Christianity, pearls are symbolized with wealth and perfection. But what causes a pearl?

A pearl is a mollusk's response to an irritant. A common belief is that irritant being a grain of sand, but that's rarely true. The "invading body" is generally organic, and the mollusk — oyster, mussel, conch — pretty much seeks to lessen the irritation and coats the foreign body with a fluid, which in turn results in a pearl. It's believed that the type of mollusk and color of its shell plays a role in the color of the resulting pearl. Whether that be white, black, pink or other. There's a legend that Cleopatra offered to feed Mark Anthony the most expensive meal ever. Following this, she removed one of her earrings and dissolved it in a glass of wine then drunk it. She proceeded to remove and offer the other for him to imbibe, an offer to which he declined. Would you? The likelihood of this being true, without the pearl first being ground is pretty low.

Apparently, fossil pearls have been found since the Triassic period some 225 million years ago! If you were to cut a natural pearl — also called a fine pearl — in half, you'd see layers like that of an onion. The difference between a natural pearl versus a cultured pearl is whether the foreign body was introduced organically or intentionally. All natural and most cultured pearls have at least some minor bumps, pits, or uneven color, imperfections generally termed blemishes. It's documented that Roman medieval Europe pearl owners would feed pearls to their chicken to remove these blemishes and improve color. 

Depending on the site of formation, pearls can be either spherical or irregular. Spherical pearls are sized by diameter. Non-spherical pearls by length and width. 

Humans have long since been fascinated by pearls, and mollusks have produced them throughout evolutionary history. Romans thought they were frozen tears of the Gods, Greeks attributed them to lightning strikes at sea. They were commonly dedicated to Venus, Goddess of love & beauty. Alexander Severus, born in Africa and not to be confused with Severus Snape from Harry Potter, reportedly hung pearls in the ears of a status of Venus.

...but even scientists had it wrong, at times claiming they were essentially underdeveloped eggs, or a sign of disease (the dis-ease part was right). Throughout history, pearls have been used in medicine and cosmetics. They were thought to treat fever, headaches, relieve difficulty in breathing, heart attack, fainting fits, prevent against bleeding, jaundice, diarrhea and a host of other ailments.

Modern pearls are often associated with Japan or the South seas. But rewind to 1493 and you'll find Christopher Columbus hauling boatloads of oysters between Cuba and Jamaica. Fortunately or unfortunately, they were edible oysters and not pearl yielding. Five years later, Columbus reached the South American mainland and there found his long sought supply of pearls. This discovery led to a pearl rush that was to last the next 150 years. Areas surrounding Hispaniola, past Cubagua and Margarita, are sites that would ultimately become known as the Pearl Coast... the richest pearl ground in the Americas.

Let's move on to pearls and their ties to slavery. The earliest mention of "pearling" under Spanish direction was found in a letter from 1509 from Nicolas de Ovando, newly appointed governor of Hispaniola, modern day Haiti & Dominican Republic. The first permanent pearl fishing settlement is said to have been on the on the Isle of Cubagua (Venezuela) and called Nueva Cadid. Most divers were probably Lucayan slaves brought from the Bahamas. Conditions were documented to be extremely harsh with high mortality rates. When Charles V became King of Spain in 1516, he issued declarations governing pearling operations. These were often ignored.

Modern pearls are often associated with Japan or the South seas. Until early 20th century, most marine pearls came from the Indian ocean, specifically the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mannar. Areas between Sri Lanka and India dominated international pearl trade yielding famous pearls belonging to Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Marco Polo. You can almost make a comparison of pearl ownership with that of non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Take the famous American pearl, Pelegrina, which was presumably collected in the Gulf of Panama. It was found at the beginning of the 16th century by a slave who was "given" their freedom as a reward. Its list of owners include King Ferdinand V, Mary Tudor (as a wedding gift), it's been worn by Margarita of Spain who was the wife of Phillip III, Josephine Bonaparte. Prince Louis Napoleon of France sold it in London in the late 19th century to the Marquis of Abercorn (for his wife). In1969, it was sold to Richard Burton at an auction as a Valentine's Day gift for Elizabeth Taylor.

With demand for pearls outrunning supply, entrepreneurs introduced a new industry; the production of pearls through human intervention. Also on the market are imitation pearls like those found on the burial robe of Edward I of England, now in the collections of the Museum of London.

If your heart yearns for natural pearls, your choices include abalone pearls, cave pearls, conch pearls — like those formed by the queen conch, strombus gigas — which are usually sunset, pink, or gold in color. You have your marine pearls from the silver or golden lipped pearl oyster, black lipped pearl oyster, la paz pearl oyster, koya pearl oyster, atlantic pearl oyster, ceylon pearl oyster, pipi world oyster, black winged pearl oyster, western winged pearl oyster. You also have fresh water pearls from the biwa pearl mussel, triangle shell pearl mussel, hybrid pearl mussel, cockscom pearl mussel, European pearl mussel, washboard pearl mussel.

If you're curious about the largest "pearl" recorded, that record goes to the Pearl of Allah.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and feel free to shop my collection of handcrafted beaded jewelry featuring Swarovski pearls. Maybe you'll find something that speaks to you like Margherite and the Three Pearls.

"After all the most gorgeous pearl is nothing but the splendid coffin of a miserable minute worm."

Works Cited:

  • Landman, Neil. Pearls: a Natural History. Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

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