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A Brief History of Pearls

  A brief history of pearls


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.

How pearls form in oysters
How pearls are harvested
How pearls brought to market
Know your Akoya pearls
Akoya Pearl Cultivation
Akoya Pearl Harvesting
Akoya Pearl Processing
Akoya Pearl Evaluation
Quality Factor One: Luster
Luster of Akoya Pearls
Quality Factor Two: Surface
Surface of Akoya Pearls
Quality Factor Three: Shape
Shape of Akoya Pearls
Quality Factor Four: Color
Color of Akoya Pearls
Quality Factor Five: Size
Size of Akoya Pearls
Know your South Sea pearls
South Sea Pearl Cultivation
South Sea Pearl Harvesting
South Sea Pearl Processing
South Sea Pearl Quality Evaluation
Luster of South Sea Pearls
Surface of South Sea Pearls
Shape of South Sea Pearls
Color of South Sea Pearls
Size of South Sea Pearls
Know your Tahitian pearls
Tahitian Pearl Cultivation
Tahitian Pearl Harvesting
Tahitian Pearl Processing
Tahitian Pearl Quality Evaluation
Luster of Tahitian Pearls
Surface of Tahitian Pearls
Shape of Tahitian Pearls
Color of Tahitian Pearls
Size of Tahitian Pearls
Gift Giving Occasions


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