History of Pearls

Pearls are officially the world’s oldest gem, and for that reason they are considered the “Queen of Gems.” Because pearls have been around since before written history, their discovery cannot be attributed to one person. It is believed that people searching for food along the shore discovered them. What we do know is that they were worn as a form of adornment for millennia, thanks to a fragment of pearl jewelry found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess that dates back to 420 BC.

pearl chandelier

Circle chandelier 14k yellow gold fish hook earrings featuring nine freshwater pearls each. Available for $165.

With such a long and ancient history, it’s no wonder that over time, pearls became shrouded in myth and legend. In China, pearls were said to symbolize the purity of the wearer, while in the dark ages, knights often wore pearls on the battlefield, they believed the precious gemstone would keep them safe. According to legend, Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony that she could throw the most expensive dinner party in history. She crushed one large pearl from a pair of earrings into a glass of wine, and drank it. Astonished, Marc Antony declined his dinner, as well as the matching pearl, and admitted she had won. Pliny, the world’s first gemologist, writes in his famous book, Natural History, that the two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000 ounces of silver. Today, that would be worth $27,693,750, with silver currently being approximately $14.77 an ounce.

pearl cross necklaces (1 of 1)

Freshwater pearl cross pendant 18″ necklace in 14k yellow gold with a price of $275.

During the 1920’s Coco Chanel was rarely seen without several strings of pearls on her neck. She shocked society ladies by mixing real pearls with fake pearls, and by pairing her pearls with casual wear. She inspired the costume jewelry trend and many women started to wear imitation pearls made from Lucite or glass. A famously beautiful pearl called La Peregrina was given by Prince Phillip II of Spain to his bride Mary during the 16th century. La Peregrina, a white Seawater pearl, had a series of royal owners until the 1960’s. Actor Richard Burton gave it to his jewelry-obsessed wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor had a necklace of pearls and rubies designed to showcase the beautiful La Peregrina pearl. Furthermore, Marilyn Monroe may be famous for singing “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” but she was actually very fond of pearls. One of her most treasured pieces of jewelry was a simple 16 inch string of pearls, given to her by Joe DiMaggio during their honeymoon in Japan. Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Jackie Kennedy were also very much into pearls, both real and imitation.

Elizabeth Taylor had the La Peregrina pearl set in a diamond, ruby, and pearl Cartier necklace. In 2011, the necklace sold for 11.8 million dollars. 

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Left: natural peach freshwater pearl 18″ strand with 14k yellow gold clasp priced at $310. Right: natural pink freshwater pearl 18″ strand with 14k yellow gold clasp priced at $650.

Unlike gemstones that are mined from the earth, a living organism produces a pearl, in fact, their very existence is a freak of nature. A pearl is formed when an irritant, such as a parasite or a piece of shell becomes accidentally lodged in an oyster’s soft inner body. This causes the oyster to secrete a crystalline substance called nacre, which builds up around the irritant in layers until a pearl is formed. In 1893 Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a Japanese noodle maker, created the world’s first cultured pearl. Mikimoto was able to do this by manually introducing an irritant into an oyster to stimulate it to form a pearl.

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Cultured pearl and 14k yellow gold micro hoop earrings available for $200.

There are four types of pearls, Akoya, Freshwater, Tahitian, and South Sea Pearls. Akoya pearls have grown off the coast of Japan for nearly 100 years, and have been the classic pearl of choice for just as long. When one pictures a round strand of white pearls, they are usually thinking of Akoya. Although rare, baroque shapes and natural colors, like silver-blue and gold, do exist. Akoya pearls are best known for their perfectly round shape and sharp, reflective luster.

pearls baroque (1 of 1)

Alternating South Sea Tahitian pearl 18″ strand with a 14k gold two-tone clasp and priced at $4,900. 

Freshwater pearls are the most affordable pearls sold today. They are known for baroque shapes, white and pastel body colors, and softer luster than Akoya pearls. The only exception being in the case of rare metallics. Out of all the different types of pearls, freshwater offers the widest range of options when it comes to shape and size.

Tahitian pearls are grown in French Polynesia, they are the only naturally dark pearls that exist. Tahitian pearls are often referred to as black, but they actually come in a rainbow of exotic colors. Round Tahitian pearls are very rare, other interesting shapes like drops, baroques, and ovals are highly sought and still considered very valuable.

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Freshwater pearl circle pin in 18k yellow gold with a price of $200.

South Sea pearls are the largest saltwater pearls grown today. These beautiful pearls are grown primarily in Australia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, and range in color from white to gold. Because of their size, perfectly round South Sea pearls are quite rare.  

pearl cross hoops and pin on wheel (1 of 1)

Micro pearl collection featuring a circle pin, a pair of hoop earrings, and a cross pendant necklace. Priced individually.

Like gemstones, the quality of a pearl is determined by its size, shape, color, and luster. When buying pearls it is important to look at the thickness of the nacre, this determines not only the pearl’s luster, but how long it will last. Pearls require a bit more attention than diamonds do. In order to keep them in pristine condition, they should be stored separately from diamonds, to ensure the harder stone does not scratch the surface of the pearls. We recommend putting pearl jewels into a cloth bag before placing them in the jewelry box. Acidic elements such as perfume and even perspiration can dull a pearl’s lustre, so never spray scent directly onto them and wipe the pearls before putting them away. When it comes to pearl necklaces, we recommend that you bring them to a jeweler every 5 years to check whether they need restringing or not.