Throughout history pearls denoted authority and political power. Chinese historians first wrote about pearls about 2206 BC. Around 500 BC Chinese royalty embellished themselves with both whole gems and crushed pearl powder (for makeup).
Pearls festooned wardrobes, such as clothing and crowns of royal women and men, the Emperor Caligula (41 AD) appreciated his horse so much that he wrapped his horse’s tack with a pearl necklace, and wealthy Egyptians were buried with their pearls.
World faiths, such as Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, took admiration in another direction and considered pearls symbols of innocence and purity.
Before science helped us understand how pearls were formed, people told stories to explain what they saw.
Persians thought the iridescent orb rested at that magical place where rainbows meet the earth. They thought that thunder and lightning produced these orbs;
The symbolism that connected pearls and wealth drove action. By throwing a round pearl on a rubbish pile, people demonstrated their wealth to others. Cleopatra supposedly dissolved a pearl in a glass of wine and drank the wine to show Mark Anthony that she could consume the riches of an entire population in a single swallow;
Imagine looking at the night sky at that magical moment when a full moon, hovering above a black sea, dips below the horizon. According to residents of the South Pacific islands, those intense beams of light attract oysters to the ocean’s surface, and bless them with a celestial dew that bathes black pearls with their colorful hues of blue, purple, green, and gold;
People believed that the legendary, Tahiti Oro, the god of peace and fertility, came to earth on a rainbow, bringing a magical oyster that carried a black pearl for princess Bora Bora. The pearl symbolized his love;
Japanese as well as other Eastern cultures taught people that pearls were the tears of mythical beings like mermaids, nymphs, and angels;
Finally, Christopher Columbus, and his contemporaries, thought mollusks formed pearls from dew drops.
We come by our love of pearls from our ancestors. Modern practices of culturing pearls allow that passion to touch the lives of so many more people. Future blogs explore our current knowledge of pearls.