The History of Pearls
As this mosaic reveals, pearls have been
treasured for countless centuries.
© by Fred Ward
Long known as the "Queen of Gems," pearls possess a history and allure far
beyond what today's wearer may recognize. Throughout much of recorded history,
a natural pearl necklace comprised of matched spheres was a treasure of almost
incomparable value, in fact the most expensive jewelry in the world. Now we see
pearls almost as accessories, relatively inexpensive decorations to accompany
more costly gemstones.
Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were
so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble
and very rich. A jewelry item that today's working women might take for
granted, a 16-inch strand of perhaps 50 pearls, often costs between $500 and
$5,000. At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak,
the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an
entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother's pearl earrings.
No one will ever know who were the earliest people to collect and wear pearls.
George Frederick Kunz, whom I like to call America's first gemologist, in his
1908 masterpiece, The Book of the Pearl, states his belief that an
ancient fish-eating tribe, perhaps along the coast of India, initially
appreciated the shape and lustre of saltwater pearls, which they discovered
while opening oysters for food.
No matter the origin, a reverence for pearls spread throughout the world over
the ensuing millennia. India's sacred books and epic tales abound with pearl
references. One legend has the Hindu god Krishna discovering pearls when he
plucks the first one from the sea and presents it to his daughter Pandaïa
on her wedding day. China's long recorded history also provides ample evidence
of the importance of pearls. In the Shu King, a 23rd-century B.C. book, the
scribe sniffs that as tribute, a lesser king sent "strings of pearls not quite
round." In Egypt, decorative mother-of-pearl was used at
least as far back as 4200 B.C., but the use of pearls themselves seems to have
been later, perhaps related to the Persian conquest in the fifth century B.C.
Rome's pearl craze reached its zenith during the first century B.C. Roman women
upholstered couches with pearls and sewed so many into their gowns that they
actually walked on their pearl-encrusted hems. Caligula, having made his horse
a consul, decorated it with a pearl necklace.
Pearls, in fact, played the pivotal role at the most celebrated banquet in
literature. To convince Rome that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth that
put it above conquest, Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony she could give the most
expensive dinner in history. The Roman reclined as the queen sat with an empty
plate and a goblet of wine (or vinegar). She crushed one large pearl of a pair
of earrings, dissolved it in the liquid, then drank it down. Astonished, Antony
declined his dinner—the matching pearl—and admitted she had won. Pliny,
the world's first gemologist, writes in his famous Natural History that
the two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000
ounces of fine silver ($9,375,000 with silver at $5/ounce).
and Egyptians prized pearls above all other gems.
The Arabs have shown the greatest love for pearls. The depth of their
affection for pearls is enshrined in the Koran, especially within its
description of Paradise, which says: "The stones are pearls and jacinths; the
fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the
delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths,
and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable lustre, and is attended by
beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls."
Over time, a range of pearl styles became available to royalty
and commoners alike.
During the long history of pearls, the principal oyster beds lay in the Persian
Gulf, along the coasts of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and in the Red Sea.
Chinese pearls came mainly from freshwater rivers and ponds, whereas Japanese
pearls were found near the coast in salt water. Nearly all the pearls in
commerce originated from those few sources. Over the next millennium only three
substantive events altered what appeared to be a very stable pattern.
Considering the minimal state of pearling in the United States today, it is
impressive that two of the three developments occurred in the New
As Europe raced to capitalize on what Columbus had stumbled upon, the major
powers of the day concentrated on spheres of influence. Spain focused its
efforts in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Along both the Atlantic
and Pacific coasts of Central America, the Spanish forced slaves to dive for
pearls. The English colonizers along North America's Atlantic coast and French
explorers to the north and west, all found native Americans wearing pearls, and
they discovered freshwater pearls in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River
basins. So many gems were exported to Europe that the New World quickly gained
the appellation "Land of Pearls."
What is now the United States became famous for two products. Its best
freshwater pearls fueled a ready market overseas, purchased by people who,
unlike the then less sophisticated frontier Americans, knew the rarity and
value of large, round, lustrous pearls. Many of the best examples made their
way into Europe's royal gem collections, where they can still be seen on
display, usually misidentified as saltwater pearls from the Orient. America
also produced mother-of-pearl buttons, which it exported all over the world.
Iowa became the center of the trade, shipping billions of iridescent fasteners
until World War II, when newly invented plastic virtually drove quality buttons
out of the market.
Mother-of-pearl, the iridescent coating inside
oyster shells, once formed the foundation of a thriving button industry in the
While North America set a new standard for large freshwater pearls, white
saltwater pearls from the coasts of Panama and Venezuela competed with pearls
from Bahrain, and black saltwater pearls from the Bay of California (in what is
now Mexico) provided an alternative to Tahitian blacks. More pearls arrived in
Spain than the country's aristocratic market could absorb. As with the emeralds
it was mining in Colombia, Spain found ready buyers for its new pearls across
Europe and in India.
Those pearl supplies continued into the 1800s, until overfishing in Central
American waters and in North American streams depleted the beds. Pollution also
took its toll as the United States industrialized. Then, toward the end of the
last century, the single event that forever reshaped the pearl trade slowly
unfolded in the isolated island nation of Japan.
A Culture is Born
Son of a Japanese noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimoto single-handedly launched the
Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker, had a dream and a hard-working
wife, Ume. Together they set about to do what no one else had done—entice
oysters to produce round pearls on demand. Mikimoto did not know that government
biologist Tokichi Nishikawa and carpenter Tatsuhei Mise had each independently
discovered the secret of pearl culturing—inserting a piece of oyster
epithelial membrane (the lip of mantle tissue) with a nucleus of shell or metal
into an oyster's body or mantle causes the tissue to form a pearl sack. That
sack then secretes nacre to coat the nucleus, thus creating a pearl.
Mise received a 1907 patent for his grafting needle. When Nishikawa applied
for a patent for nucleating, he realized that he and Mise had discovered the
same thing. In a compromise, the pair signed an agreement uniting their common
discovery as the Mise-Nishikawa method, which remains the heart of pearl
culturing. Mikimoto had received an 1896 patent for producing hemispherical
pearls, or mabes, and a 1908 patent for culturing in mantle tissue. But he
could not use the Mise-Nishikawa method without invalidating his own patents.
So he altered the patent application to cover a technique to make round
pearls in mantle tissue, which was granted in 1916. With this technicality,
Mikimoto began an unprecedented expansion, buying rights to the Mise-Niskikawa
method and eclipsing those originators of cultured pearls, leaving their names
only for history books.
Largely by trial and error over a number of years, Mikimoto did contribute one
crucial discovery. Whereas Nishikawa nucleated with silver and gold beads,
Mikimoto experimented with everything from glass to lead to clay to wood. He
found he had the highest success rates when he inserted round nuclei cut from
U.S. mussel shells. Although some countries continue to test other nuclei, U.S.
mussel shells have been the basis for virtually all cultured saltwater pearls
for 90 years.
Mikimoto's efforts made pearls in a range of styles and
prices available to consumers worldwide.
Even though third with his patents and his secrets, Mikimoto revolutionized
pearling. Ever the flamboyant showman and promoter, he badgered jewelers and
governments to accept his cultured products as pearls. His workers created
massive pearl structures, which he displayed at every major international
exposition. By mastering the techniques, Mikimoto, then hundreds of other
Japanese firms, made pearls available to virtually everyone in the world.
Fred Ward is a gemologist and author of the book Pearls (Gem Book
Publishers, Bethesda, Maryland, 1998), from which this article was adapted.
What's Killing the Oysters |
Culture of Freshwater Pearls
How Many Pearls? |
History of Pearls |
Teacher's Guide |
Site Map |
Editor's Picks |
Previous Sites |
Join Us/E-mail |
About NOVA |
Site Map |
PBS Online |
NOVA Online |
© | Updated November 2000