A HISTORY OF PEARLS

As the world's first gemstone ever to be used in jewelry, pearls have been highly sought after by different civilizations around the world for thousands of years. Here are a few curated highlights from the history of ancient civilization’s most cherished gemstone.

5,600-ish BCE

The world’s oldest known pearl was found off the coast of Abu Dhabi and dated to approx. 8,000 years of age

Marawah Island

The world’s oldest known pearl was discovered in 2017 on Marawah island, a small island off the coast of modern day Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Measuring just 2mm in length, carbon dating placed this pearl’s age somewhere between 5,600-5,800 BCE - making it almost 8,000 years old! Experts believe that pearls were being worn by local people as jewelry at the time, as well as traded with Mesopotamia (Ancient Iraq) for ceramics and other goods.

2,300-ish BCE

Portrait by Giuseppe Castiglione shows Empress Xiaoxianchun of the Qianlong dynasty wearing pearl earrings

China

The world’s earliest historical record of pearl jewelry dates back to about 2,300 BCE in ancient China, where the literary work the “Shu King” describes how Chinese emperor and founder of the Xia Dynasty, “Yu The Great”, received freshwater pearls from the river Hwai as a tribute from one of his subjects. Pearls remained quite popular among Chinese royalty throughout the following centuries all the way up until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

1,500-ish BCE

18th century painting depicting Hindu god Krishna and goddess Radha wearing pearls

India

The earliest Indian historical record of pearls comes from the Rig Veda - the oldest of the Hindu sacred texts (dated to about 1,500 BCE), which mentions how pearls were used in India as adornments at the time. Pearls are commonly associated with the god Krishna in Hinduism. Whom, Krishna, is commonly described in Indian folklore as taking a pearl from the ocean and giving it to his daughter as a wedding gift.

500-ish BCE

Qajar painting of a Persian woman wearing a pearl head covering and necklaces

Persia

The world’s oldest known pearl necklace known as the “Susa Necklace” was discovered in the tomb of an ancient Persian queen, and dated to about 500 BCE. Although, experts agree it’s possible that pearls were popular in Persia for some time before that. Pearls remained a popular fashion staple among ancient Persian royalty throughout the generations. Where, at one time it’s estimated that Persia had the world’s largest pearl reserves, thanks to the abundant population of oysters which inhabited the Persian gulf at the time.

400-ish BCE

Medallion painting of Aphrodite (Greek goddess of love and beauty) wearing pearl earrings

Greece

Adoption of pearls as a fashion trend spread to Ancient Greece from neighboring Persia, likely starting sometime around 500 BCE. Although their popularity didn’t really take off until Alexander the Great’s Persian conquests around 2,300 BCE, which gave the Greek empire access to Persia’s rich natural pearl oyster reserves, and accelerated the adoption of pearls as a fashion staple among Greek aristocrats. In Greek mythology, pearls are commonly associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.

300-ish BCE

17th century painting “The Banquet of Cleopatra” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo depicts Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra dropping one of her pearl earrings into a glass of wine to prove a bet against Marc Anthony, in this widespread tale that lacks solid historical evidence

Egypt

Although ancient Egyptians are recorded as using mother of pearl in decorations dating back as early as 3,000 BCE, the use of pearls themselves in jewelry is not recorded in Egyptian society until about 300 BCE, when the Greek conquest of Egypt spread the already blossoming fashion trend over into Egypt. Pearls subsequently became a fashion mainstay among Egyptian elites, and are recorded as being loved by many pharaohs, most notably Cleopatra whom is known for having had a particular fondness for pearl jewelry

100-ish BCE

The 6th century mosaic “Empress Theodora and Her Court” depicts Byzantine empress Theodora wearing a pearl headdress

Rome

Pearls started making their way into Roman fashion at around the same time as they did in neighboring Greece, at around 500 BCE. Although their popularity accelerated after the Greek conquest of Persia, which increased the availability of pearls coming into Rome. Over the coming centuries pearls became the ultimate status symbol among ancient Rome’s ruling elite. So much so, in fact, that Julius Caesar (a known connoisseur of pearls) passed a law at about 100 BCE stating that only aristocrats were legally allowed to wear pearls within Rome’s borders.

1,100-ish AD

The pearl-studded Holy Crown of Hungary was the coronation crown used by the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its existence. Various royalty have been crowned with it since the twelfth century

Hungary

In the centuries following their rise to popularity in Greece and Rome, pearls became a fashion mainstay for the Kingdom of Hungary’s ruling elite. A trend that’s remained strong throughout history, with numerous accounts of Hungarian Kings and Queens adorning themselves with pearls. All the way up to Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in the 19th century.

1,500s AD onwards

One of many paintings depicting Queen Elizabeth the 1st wearing pearl necklaces.

Western Europe

Although pearls were present in Western Europe for centuries before this, only low quantities were available and thus they were generally reserved for royalty or wealthy aristocrats. However, both their availability and popularity skyrocketed in the 16th century when European settlers discovered rich pearl oyster reserves in Latin America. Upon plundering these reserves (something we certainly don’t condone, but a historical fact nonetheless), it led to a steady increase in the supply of pearls coming into Europe. Leading pearls to become an essential luxury item among Europe’s ruling class over the following centuries. A trend which has continued all the way up until the modern day, with one specific example being Princess Diana of Wales who was fond of pearls and pictured in them on many occasions.

1893 AD

Japanese entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto and creator of the cultured pearl, whom is widely credited with revolutionizing the pearl industry through his discovery

Japan

Although pearls had been popular in different areas of the world for many centuries before this, in most cases they were reserved for the very wealthy or ruling class due to the intense amount of time and effort required to find and harvest wild pearls. This all changed following the year 1893, when Japanese inventor and Entrepreneur Kokichi Mikimoto discovered how to culture pearls deliberately by surgically inserting small pieces of shell and mantle tissue into the shell of an oyster. Compared to hunting for pearls in the wild, the discovery of this far simpler method of obtaining pearls led to a far wider abundance of high quality pearls than had ever been seen before previously.

1900s, 2000s AD

Film and fashion icon, and International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame member Audrey Hepburn, wearing a pearl necklace

World

After the groundbreaking discovery of Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893, the increase in availability of high quality pearls led them to become a more accessible fashion option all across the world. Whereby, the arrival of high quality, relatively affordable pearl jewelry cemented their place as a basic and essential jewelry item for women everywhere. A trend which continues to this very day.