Pearls In History

Pearls are the oldest gem known to mankind simply because their beauty is instant. We can appreciate their beauty at the very moment we set our eyes on it. Kimberlite - raw, excavated ore from a diamond mine - on the other hand, looks like any other subterranean rock to you and me and requires much effort before the diamond can finally reveal itself.   

Pearls may well have been one of the reasons why the Romans invaded Britain as early as 55 B.C. they made their maiden documented entrance into the annals of history when it was first mentioned in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (around 8th century BC) as “bright drops” and “drops of tears”. Then, there was the famous wager between Cleopatra and Marc Anthony which Cleopatra won hands down in no small measure thanks to her pearls (and of course her wit). 

The Hindus and the Taoists believed very early on that pearls perpetuate youth, cure eye diseases and act as an antidote for poison. 

Meanwhile, until 11th century Europe, jewellers were mainly employed to craft jewellery such as medals, pendants and crucifixes in monastic workshops for use in church ceremonies. After the East-West Schism introduced secularism in Christianity, the demand for monastic workshops reduced which gave rise to the ornamental secular workshops. Secularism has started to take over religion as a way of life.  Throughout the 13th to 16th centuries, the adornment of jewellery became a status symbol and a mark of rank. People relished power and wealth and looked for every opportunity to flaunt it. Laws that were passed to restrict such ostentatious public display came head to head with fashionable trends such as new hairstyles and low necked dresses which created - and further increased - the demand for gems and jewellery to be used as accessories. 

New sources of gems and jewels had to be found to meet these demands. Amongst the spices and silks of the East, gemstones and pearls were also discovered there in abundance. Columbus however looked in the other direction and founded the New World in 1492. He ingeniously traded scissors, buttons and broken potteries for Indian treasures, precious stones, gold and pearls. In fact, the 200-grain pear-shaped pearl, the famous Le Peregrina, was found in the Gulf of Panama during this period.  It handsomely graced the Spanish crowns for centuries and it still exists today save for some loss in its shine and some minor blemishes due to it being manhandled by Elizabeth Taylor’s Pekinese dog! If you are lucky enough to get a close look at it today, you can probably see the bite mark. 

Fast-forwarding to the 17th and 18th centuries, Europe was in deeply religious and political turmoil and upheaval. The opulence of the Renaissance era was beginning to decline.  Governments were still setting up laws to curb the excesses of the nobles who were beginning to finally acknowledge the needs and rights of the bourgeoisie and lower classes or risk being dragged to the guillotine. Speaking of necks, it is interesting to note that the pearl choker was first worn by Alexandra, the wife of Prince of Wales, used purportedly to hide a scar on her neck. 

Here is an interesting side note. Humanism as a philosophy first appeared in Italy sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries. Its emphasis was on human values rather than dogmas and rituals. During this period, imperfectness and oddity became a fascination and a following.  Odd shaped baroque pearls, for instance, were used to represent  - amongst others - mermaids, animals and in the case of the Canning Jewel, the human torso of a sea figure. Here, was one of the earliest examples of the acceptance and use of imperfection in pearls (and other objects in general) which leads us to the next topic.