Pearls have been attracting mankind for six thousand years. Epochs, civilizations and empires changed, but pearls invariably remained the favorite gem of pharaohs, kings, emperors. Each epoch shaped traditions and left legends and stories connected with this wonderful gemstone.
Pearls are the first precious jewellery known to man.
As Edwin Streeter, the author of Pearls and Life, wrote "these humble little balls have played their part in the development of world progress and civilization". One of the first written records of pearl trade dates back to the 2nd century AD and tells of an important role in the trade and prosperity of ancient India, namely Manara. Pearls from Manara Bay are still well known to experts today.
The oldest surviving piece of pearl jewellery is kept in Paris in the Louvre's Persian Gallery. This necklace of three strands on which 216 pearls were strung was found in 1901 in Susa, the winter residence of the Persian kings, inside a bronze sarcophagus. Images of pearls are found on ancient Persian sculpture dating back to the seventh and ninth centuries BC.
In his manuscript "Natural History", Pliny the Elder stated that pearls were considered to be the first among the jewellery and that the pearls that adorned Cleopatra during the feast with Mark Antony were worth 60 million sesterces, which equaled 52 460 kilograms of silver.
Oriental pearls from the Persian Gulf, Sri Lanka, India and the Red Sea were valued the most. In these territories they were very much loved. Men and women wore pearls as a sign of special distinction or social status. In later times, in the lands of modern Europe pearls were often used to decorate the crowns of kings and the binding of holy books. For example, on the production of the Library of Rouen, it took 30 years, and for the decoration of the Gospel of Ashburnham in the IX century AD it took 98 pearls.
Alexander the Great played a great role in the history of pearl trade, connecting the East and the West. Conquering the most of the civilized world, he promoted the exchange of goods between different peoples. So when the trade routes of Alexander the Great reached the East, its citizens, who already had treasures of natural pearls, saw for the first time a foreign gem. The history of natural pearls started the modern era of popularity of all types of this natural wonder.
After the Crusades in Europe there was a fashion for pearl-embroidered clothing, which by the end of the reign of Louis XVI, became an essential attribute of high society. The attire of a society lady could consist of a complete pearl 'set' - a pearl embroidered neckline of the dress, a necklace and earrings.
The widespread popularity and use of pearls in all walks of life resulted in a frenzy of demand. In order to restrict the purchase of pearls, many countries began to issue laws aimed at restricting the possession and bequest of the stone. However, many of these edicts were safely circumvented. In time, pearl mining began to be affected by various destructive factors: the depletion of the fisheries and the change in the current that carried away the food for the oyster. In the early 20th century, the pearl trading hubs of Bombay, London, New York and Paris faced a decline in the supply of pearls to the market.
Around the same time, Japanese specialists started making the first attempts at producing cultured pearls. Initially, the Japanese nature fully endowed its inhabitants with the precious gifts of the sea which constitute the main wealth of this country. To this day, Japan remains one of the main suppliers of pearls to the world market.
Legends and traditions
Perhaps no other gift of nature has become the hero of so many legends as pearls. From the earliest times, there has been a special culture of wearing pearls in Japan. A girl was born with a pearl, she grew up with a pearl necklace, and she would wear a pearl necklace when she got married.
According to a Japanese legend, pearls owe their heavenly beauty to the gods. Once upon a time, heaven became too crowded for them. The gods chose the Ise Peninsula as their home on Earth. Eventually they left this land, leaving behind a real paradise, studded with pink sparkling stones. These countless riches were tossed onto the coastal sand by the warm waves of the sea. Ironically, it is on this peninsula that the Pearl Company Yamagiwa's domain is located. This is where the annual 'Pearl Auctions' take place, from where the gems come to the world's finest salons.
Ancient beliefs have always attributed mythical powers to pearls. The Japanese attributed it the ability to tell a lie from the truth and to recognize a true friend. Other peoples, who gathered pearls, believed that they bestowed health, eternal youth, and conjugal happiness. For ancient Hindus pearls were seen as dewdrops that fell in the night and fell into the open shells of oysters, while the inhabitants of the Middle East called pearls the tears of God. In the Roman Empire they were considered a symbol of power. In the Arab-Muslim world it was synonymous with wisdom and eloquence. In Russia, it is the embodiment of purity and perfection. In addition, in all countries pearls were the talisman of art people. No wonder that in the works of almost all poets, especially oriental, you can find a reference to it.
There are legends and funny stories about pearls. For instance, one noble lady had her mansion mortgaged in order to get hold of a very special pearl. Now it is a Cartier house in New York. The most expensive fake necklace belonged to Jackie Kennedy and was sold for 211 thousand dollars. Well, the most scandalous was the story of "La Peregrina" pearl. In 1579, a slave negro dug a pear-shaped pearl the size of a dove's egg out of the waters near the Margarita Island (which means 'pearl' in Spanish). King Philip II of Spain paid for it one hundred thousand francs, but soon it ended up in the hands of conquistador Nanes. Nanez donated it to Queen Mary Tudor of England who sent it back to Spain after her death. Joseph Bonaparte took it to France in 1813, then it went to Louis Bonaparte, King of the Netherlands, then Lord Hamilton bought it and gave it to his beautiful wife, the famous Lady Hamilton. Then the pearl returned to Spain for a while, until it was finally bought for 39 million by Tim Burton as a Valentine's Day gift to Elizabeth Taylor. The jewel that started wars and murders was lost to its new owner and then miraculously saved from the teeth of her own dog.
The pearls from Catherine de Medici's dowry were by right considered to be the best in Europe - a necklace of seven strands of pearls, a gift from Pope Julius II. After marriage she gave them to Queen Mary Stuart of England, after whose execution they went to Queen Catherine I of England. Another Medici, Mary, wore on the occasion of the christening of her son - the future King Louis XIII, a dress modestly decorated with thirty thousand pearls.
By the way, another famous pearl is the "Wanderer" or "Pilgrim". It got its name because of its perfectly round shape. One could not predict where the pearl would roll if placed on a flat surface. This exceptionally beautiful pearl the size of a walnut was found off the coast of India, at one time belonged to the brotherhood of St. Zosima in Moscow, and later ended up in the treasury of the Russian state.
Russian tsarina also had a passion for pearls. The wife of Nicholas II, Alexandra Fedorovna loved to wear long necklaces from large pearls. She also gave big pearls to her daughters for every birthday.
One of the most beautiful and valuable pearls in the world is the pearl "Regent", which is kept in the State Diamond Fund of Russia. In the 30s of the 20th century, an absolutely incredible pearl weighing around 6 kg was found in Philippine waters.