History of the pearl

Books dealing with pearls devote particular attention to ancient stories, tales, legends referring to pearls. Probably from marketing point of view. Or because people like tales… I do not know. By all means I do not stand for it. Let us take one of the probably best-known stories relayed by Pliny the Elder: as legend says that in order to show her wealth to Marc Antony, Cleopatra took one of her pearl-earrings off, dropped in vinegar or wine and when it dissolved, she swallowed it… Pliny called it the largest pearl ever existed worth 10 million sesterces… that is the story but it does not hold water… The pearl would not dissolve in the vinegar, neither in one nor in 24 hours… of course it is possible that Cleopatra swallowed the pearl like a pill.

You can find a few historical dates of pearls as follows:

  • 2800 BC > Egyptian civilization – first documented pearl fisheries at the Red Sea
  • 2500 BC > Sumer and Phoenician civilization – rivalry increases in trading with pearls
  • 2300 BC > First documented records in Shu dinasty – records stated that pearls were considered as means to establish a stable economy and increase wealth of King Shu
  • 400 BC > the oldest known pearl necklace was found by archeologists near the Persian city of Susa
  • 200 BC > Han Dinasty, China – two big pearls were sold to the old Empress, one recorded as 58mm , other as 32mm, both pearls pear shape
  • 44 BC > The Kush Empire (Ethiopia) pearl fisheries supplied Queen Candace with the two legendary big pearls that she gave to Queen Cleopatra. One of these pearls could be in the story which Cleopatra put in wine goblet
  • 71 AD > Town of El Katiff was a great pearl center at this period
  • 400 > Significant part of wealth of Chandragupta II., the Indian Raja was based on pearls
  • 1294 > Marco Polo as personal envoy of Kublai Khan (on his journey to Venice) visited several pearl fisheries at Ceylon
  • 1500 > Acc. to Aboroginal tales Chinese and Indonesian traders visited Australia regularly for pearls and mother-of-pearls before the 16th century
  • 1558-1603 > Queen Elisabeth I. was well known for her love of pearls and she made pearls the popular royal gem
  • 19th century > Western and Northern coasts of Australia and other Polynesian Islands became centres of shell fisheries