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 rumored 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.