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utting, shaping, or tinting were not necessary to emphasize their beauty. They are the oldest precious stones known to mankind and have always symbolized wealth and refinement. They have always beautified the wardrobe of aristocrats, and today they are designated as the most popular jewelry. Along with Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” their purity is often illustrated by Vermeer’s painting and book, “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” or Chanel’s iconic black-and-white photography.

Old beauty

Delicate and mysterious, pearls are undoubtedly the oldest gemstones. Ancient papyri and parchments tell the story. One of the most advanced references is written by the hand of the tragic Homer — the Iliad and the Odyssey, books as if from the beginning of the world. And the oldest archaeological evidence is on display at the Louvre Museum: a wonderful necklace made of 216 pearls, found inside the sarcophagus of a Persian princess, which dates no later than the fourth century BC.

One of the most beautiful and interesting pearls in antiquity was found, of course, in a temple of the goddess Aphrodite. The 14 mm pearl, dating from the 3rd century BC, decorates a hairpin, an accessory that is in the British Museum today. The common legends of ancient Rome and Greece say that Aphrodite and Venus, the goddesses of beauty and love, were born like pearls from a shell.

Aphrodite and Venus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In ancient Rome, the popularity of pearls coincided with the period of glory of the Empire in Asia Minor, from the middle of the first century BC. According to Pliny’s writing, after winning the last Mithridatic war, General Pompey triumphantly entered the capital of the empire wearing a crown of 33 pearls.

He also wrote that Cleopatra wore two pearls as earrings. One of them dissolved it and swallowed it to win a bet with Emperor Marcus Antonius, and the other was cut in two and offered as earrings to the statue of Venus in the Pantheon in Rome. The story also says that the pearls were the reason why Julius Caesar invaded Britain since the novel Tacitus himself described their special beauty: golden brown. And the whole Roman emperor gave, in the first century BC, the law that only the noble class should have the right to wear delicate pearls.

The Age of Pearls

The first part of the Middle Ages was not a favorable one for jewelry. Europe is struggling with the invasion of the barbarians on the one hand and with the rigid dogmas of Christianity on the other. In thirteenth-century France, bourgeois and ladies were forbidden to wear jewelry, which was legally reserved only for the nobility. But pearls survived this era as well, not as jewelry, but as medicine. They were considered an antidote to poisons and were supposed to treat heart and blood diseases. Their medicinal properties were talked about until late in the 18th century when Arab doctors believed that pearls cured eye diseases, palpitations, and hemorrhages.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was gradual, with people becoming more and more eager for art and beauty. The age of great geographical discoveries has come, which has brought an enormous flow of pearls from the newly discovered Americas. The New World was bringing new fashion. The first to enjoy the beauty of saltwater pearls were the monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Elizabeth. Spain also became home to the most beautiful pearl, La Peregrina. It seems that the beautiful gemstone was found by an African slave in the Gulf of Panama and, through the administrator of the colony, reached King Philip II. After a trip to several royal houses in Europe, La Peregrina (translated as Pilgrim) came, following an auction, in possession of the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor for 11.8 million dollars.

Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Queen Elizabeth I (The Ditchley Portrait), ca. 1592. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For pearls, the most beautiful of all times was that of King Henry VIII. He inherited his father’s throne and fortune in 1509 — and ordered everything he had, clothes, hats, and shoes, to be adorned with pearls. London had become the capital of pearls, and this can be seen in the paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger. His passion for the transparent stones was also inherited by his daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I. Thousands of pearls beautified — and made difficultly — her outfits (hundreds of dresses and dozens of wigs).

Even for the funeral procession, Elizabeth I left everything by will, including her clothes, decorated with pearls. The two British monarchs thus managed to define pearls in history as jewels of royalty. Also, in the English courts, pearls continued their best path in the history of fashion, they being, in the Victorian era, the most desired ornaments.

In Europe, pearls continued to have the significance of purity, often being considered a suitable gift for a wedding. However, tradition says that they bring bad luck if they are worn by the bride on the day of the big event. The last empress of France, Eugénie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III, ignored the sayings of the people and, at the wedding, wore several strings of pearls — it seems that her whole life would be a long tragedy.

It was the middle of the 19th century, and after a period when pearls had been enclosed in a jewelry box in favor of other precious stones, such as amethyst or topaz, they were returning to the forefront. In a workshop in Paris owned by Samuel Bing, pearls were beginning to emerge from the patterns of the past — they went from being a symbol of nobility to especially enjoying the middle class. They were new jewelry, inspired by the Orient, with sophisticated works, but accessible to most everyone. And because this current was to have a name, it was called Art Nouveau.

Samuel Bing and L’Art Nouvea (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The answer was not long in coming. Those who gave the exact time in fashion were Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Alexandra. They confirmed for everyone: pearls are more valuable than diamonds. The necklace of several strings of pearls, tight around the neck, like a collar, is a jewel that is attributed to Alexandra. She just wanted to hide a scar from her neck, but for the rest of the world, it even became fashionable.

Cultured pearls

The Japanese Kokichi Mikimoto realized that pearls are a source of wealth, being desired by the whole world. So, in the run-up to World War I, he tried to find a way to make them. In 1916, he, along with two other Japanese, managed to patent the process of obtaining cultured pearls. It was hard at first for people to want to buy less expensive versions: pearls that were not traditionally sourced and at the time were widely considered to be lesser than the “real thing.”

Alden Gay Wearing Pearls And A Gown Of Black And White Georgette Crepe By Chanel, 1924 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But the Great War was over, and he had left the change behind. The era of the modern woman had come, with a short skirt and even shorter hair. And because the new cultured pearls were in vogue, long strings hung around the necks of the beautiful ladies of the jazz age. And one more thing: after the Second World War, the pearls were brought to the street, in daylight, by Coco Chanel. Large jewelry, mostly fake, now accessorized outfits.

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