Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very rich. A jewelry item that today’s working women might take for granted, a 16-inch strand of perhaps 50 pearls, often costs between $500 and $5,000. At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
No one will ever know who the earliest people were to collect and wear pearls. George Frederick Kunz, whom I like to call America’s first gemologist, in his 1908 masterpiece, The Book of the Pearl, states his belief that an ancient fish-eating tribe, perhaps along the coast of India, initially appreciated the shape and luster of saltwater pearls, which they discovered while opening oysters for food.
Pearls played the pivotal role at the most celebrated banquet in literature.
No matter the origin, a reverence for pearls spread throughout the world over the ensuing millennia. India’s sacred books and epic tales abound with pearl references. One legend has the Hindu god Krishna discovering pearls when he plucks the first one from the sea and presents it to his daughter Pandaía on her wedding day. China’s long recorded history also provides ample evidence of the importance of pearls. In the Shu King, a 23rd-century B.C. book, the scribe sniffs that as tribute, a lesser king sent “strings of pearls not quite round.”
In Egypt, decorative mother-of-pearl was used at least as far back as 4200 B.C., but the use of pearls themselves seems to have been later, perhaps related to the Persian conquest in the fifth century B.C. Rome’s pearl craze reached its zenith during the first century B.C. Roman women upholstered couches with pearls and sewed so many into their gowns that they actually walked on their pearl-encrusted hems. Caligula, having made his horse a consul, decorated it with a pearl necklace.