Pearls are one of the oldest gems in the world. In ancient times, natural pearls were so rare and much coveted that it is only worn by the richest and noblest families. Pearls are naturally formed when an irritant enters an oyster’s soft inner body. It secretes nacre, a substance that builds up in layers until the lustrous and silky pearl is formed within the oyster shell.
Because of a discovery of a pearl jewellery fragment from a sarcophagus of a Persian princess that dates back to 420 B.C., we now know that pearls have been worn by people for many, many years. Pearls have also been used for trading since the Roman Times, where having pearls signify extreme wealth and a symbol of your high standing in society. Pliny writes an account of how Cleopatra, wagering Marc Antony that she will give the most expensive dinner in history, crushed a pearl from a pair of earring, dissolved it in water, and drank it. Pearl oysters are endemic to the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf, and the pearls that they produce are highly-prized due to their unique lustre and colour. This rich traditional heritage is now part of the history of the Arab region. Arabian pearl divers would go on pearling boats, with a crew of about 18-20 men, from June to September and get pearls. This was a major industry in the Gulf for thousands of years.
Pearls were discovered in Central and South America in the 15th and 16th century, during Spain, France, and England’s expansion into the New World. The huge demand for pearls in Europe during this time resulted in the “Pearl Age” and the New World also gained the nickname the “Land of Pearls”. Because of this big demand for pearls, the oyster beds began to dwindle and by 1800s, pearl oysters were virtually depleted in the Americas.
Today, natural pearls are very scarce. A Japanese man, Koichi Mikimoto is credited for creating the world’s first cultured pearl in 1893. In the early 1900s, cultured pearls were introduced and thus began the mass production of pearl necklaces, pearl earrings, and other types of pearl jewellery. Cultured pearls are created artificially because the irritant is implanted inside the oyster deliberately. By the 1900s and beyond, pearls can be cultured in freshwater or saltwater.