You've probably heard the saying "a diamond is forever." It was coined by a jewelry company called De Beers in the 1940s, who hired an ad agency (N.W Ayer) in an attempt to link love and diamonds together for eternity. (Kudos De Beers, you succeeded!)
However, I'd like to argue that the pearl, not the diamond, is a gem etched in eternity.
Pearls have come back in full force these days, though I question whether or not the pearl ever really left. (Did it? Did it ever leave or did I just stop wearing mine?)
As I went online to search for a dainty looking set of pearls, I fell into a wormhole of pearl history and was so excited to share. The history of something as small as the pearl may not seem important, but I think there is something magical about understanding the swirly-white-globes strung around your neck, and just why they're so special. You may just find this snippet of social studies will make you feel a little more empowered when you do wear yours!
So here it is: a history lesson in pearls!
The pearl was long ago known as "the queen of gems," and has been treasured for many centuries. Not only was it of immeasurable value, the pearl was the most expensive piece of jewelry in the world at one point in time. This probably seems crazy considering our current culture treats pearls as more of an inexpensive accessory, best warn if heading to a 1920's Gatsby Party. But pre 1900's pearls were so rare and costly that they were pretty much only available to noble (royal) and extremely rich families.
It was SO valuable, that during the Roman Empire, a Roman general named Vitellius actually financed an entire military campaign by selling not a million pearls.... but by selling one. He sold ONE pearl, from his mother's earrings, to build a military campaign! How bonkers is that!? If we were talking the United State's modern day military budget (what are we at now, 9 trillion? 10?) that would be the equivalent to a 16-inch strand of 50 pearls during the Roman Empire.
While it is not completely known what 'peoples' first wore the pearl, it is thought that an ancient tribe along the coast of India, whose main diet would have been fish, might have been the first to discover and wear saltwater pearls!
Pearls are not, however, exclusively popular in one culture. They are a world wide treasure. History of the pearl has been traced through most cultures. There is a legend of the Hindu god Krishna finding a pearl and giving it to his daughter on her wedding day. In China a 23rd-century book states that a king once sent "strings of pearls not quite round." The pearl has been seen in Egypt as far back as 4200 B.C. Rome's pearl mania hit an all time high during the FIRST century B.C! That is SO stinking old you guys!
Not only has the pearl permeated history, it was often a point of leverage for ancient politicians. In fact, Cleopatra attempted to convinced Rome (Marc Antony) that Egypt had lots of wealth, so she threw this outrageous dinner, and mid-way through their meal she crushed up a large pair of pearl earrings, sprinkled it into her wine, and drank it! (Um....girlfriend...you are a baller.) Marc Antony declined his dinner after that, and admitted she'd out done him. #ancientfeminism
A gemologist (a gem historian) guesstimates that the value of that set of pearls she crushed and drank would have been around $9.4 million dollars. That chick straight up drink over $9 million dollars to prove how valuable her country was! And you thought that string around your neck handed down to you by your grandmother's grandmother was just a sweet heirloom! Nah girl. You're wearing the stuff of badass babes from ancient times!
As we approach more modern times, the 16th and 17th centuries, countries like Spain had slaves diving for pearls. When the French and English traveled along North American shores, they discovered Native Americans wearing pearls. This soon lead to the discovery of freshwater pearls (often found in Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee.) Bet you never thought of precious, expensive gems deriving from the state of OHIO did you!? Is my pearl history blowing your mind yet!?
The colonists in America sent sooo many pearls back to Europe that for a time the New World (America) was known as "The Land of Pearls." For real.
Many North American pearls made their way into Europe's royal gem collection (though they may be mislabeled as saltwater, instead of fresh water pearls).
By the 1800s, however, the North American pearl supply was nearly depleted due to overfishing and pollution on the western coast. Which lead to the pearl boom in Japan. A few people in Japan (the son of a noodle maker, a government biologist and a carpenter) discovered how to get oysters to create pearls ON DEMAND. The process is kind of confusing so I won't explain it, but they figured that shit out. They patented their "pearl culturing method" which lead to an unprecedented expansion of pearls by the early 1900s. The mastering of pearl culturing is what made pearls readily available to virtually everyone in the world.
And that, ladies and gentlemen is basically the history of pearls in a nutshell.
Of course the history of pearls doesn't just stop at the early 1900s (obviously). Pearls were super popular amongst housewives in the 1950s, and teenage girls in the 1980s (thank you Madonna). And much like 80s/retro fashion as a whole, the pearl is still around and shouting loud at us all as we shop around local boutiques and department stores. I say shouting, because most of the fashion I see touting pearls these days is pretty loud. Pearl studded jeans, pearl studded jackets, pearl polka-doted blouses. There's no subtlety...and I LOVE IT. With my newfound love of pearl history, I say bring it on! I want to be covered head to toes in pearls and channel my inner Cleopatra!
Here's just a few of my favorite pearl-studded pieces circulating at the moment!
So... what's next for 'the pearl? What does pearl history look like in 2030? How will we be wearing them then?' Who knows! Maybe pearl wedding rings will be the next thing! Maybe the technology to produce them so rapidly will get lost, and the pearl will once again become a rare and precious gem. Regardless of any future trends related to pearls...here is what I hope.
I hope the next time you throw on your pearls that you feel the weight of their history and value. I hope the next time you look at a pearl earring you think of a fiery Egyptian queen drinking its dust to defend her nation. And I hope the next time you're at a dinner party and someone asks you "what's new?" That you can bust out some MAD pearl knowledge and wow an entire room, while smiling ruefully to yourself as you finger your strand of pearls round your neck.
*History provided by: Fred Ward is a gemologist and author of the book Pearls (Gem Book Publishers, Bethesda, Maryland, 1998) - http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/history-pearls.html *