Often referred to as the "Queen of Gems," pearls have a rich history and an even richer future. These beautiful, spherical treasures from the sea, weren't always as easy to obtain as they are today; in fact, they were so rare and costly that in the year 69, the Roman emperor Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother's pearl earrings.
The Earliest Use of Pearls
Aside from legend, the earliest known use of decorative mother-of-pearl dates back to 4200 B.C.E. in Egypt. It appears that pearls themselves became most popular around 600 B.C.E. It's been rumoured that Cleopatra, in an effort to display her wealth to her lover Marc Antony, dissolved a pearl - worth about $37 million in today's dollars - in a glass of vinegar and drank it.
Many of the best, most flawless specimens of pearl are now part of ancient royal collections in Europe. The Spanish, in a race to obtain wealth, created an entire industry focused on diving for pearls along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America. At the same time, English colonizers and French explorers found Native Americans wearing and using pearls. These freshwater pearls were found in the Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee River basins, and the colonizers exported so many to Europe, that the New World became known as the "Land of Pearls".
Pearls in Modern History
Until World War II, the United States created billions of mother-of-pearl buttons for export all over the world. However, the invention of inexpensive, versatile plastic drove these beautiful fasteners out of the market.
Overfishing and over-harvesting drove many pearl beds into extinction, but in Japan, a new trade was evolving. Kokichi Mikimoto, the humble son of a noodle maker, received a patent on a grafting needle that allowed him to create a way to manufacture cultured pearls - and those pearls are extremely popular today.
In ancient Vedic texts, the pearl is born of the Earth’s waters and the heaven’s powers, fertilised by a flash of lightning. It’s considered to be the daughter of the Moon. In Western cultures, the pearl has astrological associations with the planet Venus. Like pearls, the Goddess of Love came from the sea.
Due to their shape, pearls have another watery association. Some stories say white pearls are tears shed by the Gods. One legend says the tears Eve cried when she was banished from Eden, turned to pearls.
One early Chinese myth related that pearls fell from the sky when dragons fought amongst the clouds. Another myth states that pearls originated as raindrops swallowed by oysters. In one ancient tale, a boy found a miraculous pearl. When placed in a jar with just a bit of rice, it filled the jar with rice the next day. After his neighbours discovered this, they tried to steal it. The boy swallowed the pearl to protect it. As a result, he became a dragon.
International Gem society: Pearl symbolism
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