The name ‘pearl’ is variously attributed to Teutonic and Latin derivations. The Teutonic derivation is said to come from the diminutive of beere, a berry. Latin derivations are pirula, the diminutive of pirium, a sphere, and pirula, a pear – a common shape for pearls.

The Romans gave the Greek word margarita to pearls but generally described them as unio when they were large and perfect. The word margarita was used to describe something of unique value, a cherished possession, or a favorite child.

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Pearls from Antiquity

Pearls are produced by mollusks with a nacreous lining, usually from warm Eastern waters. Today, the term ‘Oriental pearl’ signifies natural pearls from oysters of Sri Lanka, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. These fisheries are the oldest known sea fisheries whilst those of China are from freshwater sources.

Pearls were known to ancient men long before they assumed importance as jewels. Probably tribes living on the Indian coast fishing for food would eat the flesh of shellfish and discard any pearls discovered.

The aborigines of Australia, as recently as 1867, were gathering oysters for food at low tide and probably appreciating the shell rather than any pearls.

When did pearls become valuable?

To return, however, to the history of pearls, it was not until man developed and began to appreciate the beauty that pearls and mother-of-pearl assumed importance. Their importance in decoration, and later their value as barter, placed pearls in a venerated position.

The sources of the Indian Ocean supplied the Indians with pearls and pearl shells. Centuries before Christ, in ancient sacred books known as the Vedas of the brahmans, records of decoration with pearls are found. An amulet decorated with pearls and mother-of-pearl is said to ensure long life and prosperity for disciples of Brahma.

Certainly, pearls assumed many virtues in the eyes of man, and perhaps an understandable virtue accredited to them was that of purity, a reflection of their symmetrical lines and color.

An Ancient Persian Tablet

There are records of pearls in ancient writings on clay artifacts unearthed in Persia, which date the knowledge of pearls to several centuries BC. Although pearls were part of ancient Indian commerce and luxury, there is no description of actual pearl fisheries in early manuscripts until the 2nd century AD when Mannar is mentioned as ‘where pearls are found. The Gulf of Mannar is, of course, now well known to gemologists as a source of pearls.

The oldest pearl in the world?

The oldest surviving pearl ornament is in the Persian Gallery of the Louvre Museum, Paris. It is a three-row necklace of 216 pearls, discovered at Susa, the site of the winter palace of the Persian kings; it was found in a bronze sarcophagus by J. de Morgan in 1901.

Pearls in Antiquity

Knowledge of pearls and pearl ornaments may well have been lost to man because of the frangible nature of the literature, i.e., broken clay tablets, etc. It seems certain that pearls were depicted in ancient Persian sculptures as early as the 7th and 9th centuries BC.

Also, in the 1st century AD, pearls were ranked first in the order of value among precious things and the pearls worn by Cleopatra at the banquet she gave to Marc Antony were valued at 60 million sestertii. This value was equal to 1,875,000 ounces of silver.

Pearls which originated in the early days from the Persian Gulf, Sri Lanka, India, and the Red Sea, found their way by barter or by conquest to other nations of the world. It seemed that then, as now, ‘oriental’ pearls were the most important.

Some items of Roman or Greek jewelry incorporating or comprised entirely of pearls are still in existence in museums such as the Louvre (Paris), the British Museum (London), and the Metropolitan Museum (New York), to name but a few.

Statue of Aphrodite

A bronze statuette of Aphrodite, known as the Tyszkiewicz bronze’ and said to be the most beautiful bronze Venus known, was acquired in 1900 by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It still has a pearl suspended from each ear on a gold wire.

The statue’s age is variously estimated as 500-430 BC, 400-336 BC, or 330-146 BC, but the pearls are in a fairly good state of preservation.

The Chinese are recorded as having accepted pearls as payment or for tax purposes as long ago as 2000 BC. They were probably freshwater pearls.

The Chinese, Persians, Indians, and Greeks all had a great love for and appreciation of pearls. Men, as well as women, wore pearls as signs of importance or badges of rank

Pearls in Europe

In the 10th and 11th centuries AD, most freshwater pearls were recovered from the rivers of Scotland, France, and Ireland, and the Romans obtained many from England. Although the effect of returning Crusaders carrying jewels and pearls caused an appreciation in the monetary value of such jewels, pearls were not extensively used for ornamentation in England before the 12th century.

Pearls had a certain importance as a medicine for many types of ailments; mostly, small, misshapen pearls were used as powders.

Before the 12th century, pearls were far more popular in jewelry in Europe than in England. On that Continent, various sumptuary laws limiting private expenditure were obtained with the hope of quelling the demand and greed for pearls.

A number of peculiarly biased laws of possession were passed that affected the ownership and inheritance of pearls, but many of these laws were carefully avoided, if not evaded.

Simpler tastes and the improvement of cutting, faceting, and polishing of crystalline gem material had some detrimental impact on the demand for pearls which was further lessened by the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in 1725.

The supply of pearls from the Red Sea and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was not steady, and the largest reliable supplies still came from the Persian Gulf. These factors, together with cheap imitations, saw for a time the decline of the pearl in Europe.

The East, however, has always had and continues to hold great regard and veneration for pearls. The Sri Lankan pearl fisheries, which had been lying dormant for 30 years prior to British possession in 1796, had several good seasons of output, followed by exhaustion.

The South Seas islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, and the Pacific coast of Mexico, together with the new sources in Australia (1861) and the vast supplies of freshwater pearls from the Mississippi in America, combined with the later development of diving apparatus, gave further boosts to the pearl industry.

The transition from natural to cultured pearls

However, considerable strides were made in elucidating the origin of pearls. This knowledge, plus earlier findings, enabled the Japanese workers, led chiefly by Kokichi Mikimoto, to insert nuclei successfully into oysters and to produce spherical cultured pearls.

The same knowledge garnered with international cooperation was used by scientists and skilled craftsmen to devise optical and X-ray methods to combat the threat of cultured pearl.

When all seemed settled, and the laboratories which followed London’s leads were happy in their ability to determine accurately, speedily, and safely natural pearls from cultured pearls, the Japanese, once again, showed their remarkable skill and aptitude by producing pearls without a nucleus from freshwater mussels in Lake Biwa, Japan.

This remarkable achievement of producing cultured pearls from mussels in far greater amounts than from oysters has now gone the inevitable one step further with the production of non-nucleated cultured pearls from sea-water oysters. It is like the arms race, where one country produces new weaponry only to face another country’s effective countermeasures.



Pearls are truly fascinating and unique gemstones with a rich history that spans thousands of years. It’s no wonder that pearls have survived so many different eras!

Pearls are indeed beautiful and timeless and can be worn with anything, from casual wear to fancy dresses. What’s most important about pearls is that they’re always in style, so make sure you invest in some quality pieces!