Pearls are among natures most fascinating creations and one of the world's most coveted gemstones. Since the first ancient peoples discovered pearls (they long outdate human beings), they have been objects of awe and value. Pearls, unlike other gems, are the products of living animals. Their biology, microstructure, and chemistry are as much a part of their story as their ornamental uses. They have thus long fascinated both scientists and queens. A great advantage of pearls is that unlike crystalline gemstones, which usually must be cut and polished to be fully appreciated as ornaments, pearls need no help from the hand of man to bring out their allure.
As one of humankind's oldest gems, pearls have inspired many theories about their formation:
To the ancient Romans, they were the frozen tears of oysters or the gods.
The Greeks attributed pearls to lightning strikes at sea.
To the Arabs and Indians, pearls were solidified rain or dew drops, captured by the clams. The Romans too supported this conjecture and the scholar Pliny the Elder was one of its leading proponents:
"When the genial
season of the year exercises
its influence on the animal, it is said that, yawning, as it
were, it opens its shell, and so receives a kind of dew, by
means of which it becomes impregnated; and that at length
it gives birth, after many struggles, to the burden of its shell,
in the shape of pearls, which vary according to the quality of
- (Historia Naturalis; 9: 54)
In ancient cultures, matter emanating from rivers, lakes and the sea were invested with a particular brilliance and sacredness. Pearls were thought of as luminous droplets mysteriously emerging from sea and river animals. Their mysterious origins were further mystified by the belief of the ancients that water was the boundary between physical and spiritual worlds.
In scientific terms, a pearl is produced when a foreign material enters an oyster and the latter in a gesture of self-defence secretes an organic substance which coats over the foreign body. This substance is called nacre or mother of pearl. The resulting pearl may take years to develop. The only difference between actual and cultured pearls is that the foreign body accidentally gets into the pearl oyster in actual pearls and is implanted by man in oysters in cultures ones.
Until early in the twentieth century, most of the world's marine pearls came from the Indian Ocean, specifically the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar (formerly Ceylon) and India. These regions dominated the international pearl trade for more than forty centuries, yielding the famous pearls belonging to Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Marco Polo. Now, in the realm of cultured pearls, China and Japan dominate.
The color of a pearl is as complex as its origin. Each pearl is an intricate layering of color. Experts describe the color of pearls as a combination of the predominant color and a secondary color, the overtone or tint. To observe the overtone in white pearls, experts recommend viewing the pearls on a white background under direct light. In contrast, black pearls should be viewed under diffuse light.
There are many fanciful theories explaining the origin of pearl color. According to the dew theory, the weather and water quality determined the color of a pearl:
If the water was
in a purely perfect state
when it flowed into the shell, then the
pearl produced is white and brilliant,
but if it was turbid, then the pearl is of
a clouded color also; if the sky should
happen to have been lowering when it
was generated, the pearl will be of
pallid color; from all which it is quite
evident that the quality of the pearl
depends much more upon a calm
state of the heavens than of the sea. . . .
Another explanation maintained that the color of pearls was related to the depth of the water, white pearls formed in deep water and the dark pearls formed in surface water bathed in sunshine.
Pearls were commonly dedicated to Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, who according to mythology, emerged from a shell in the sea.
Errors like straws,
upon the surface flow,
He who would search for pearls must
-John Dryden, Prologue to All for Love, 1678.
It is a singular
reflection that the gem so admired and
coveted by man, should be the product
of disease in a helpless mollusk.
- H Martyn Hart
After all, the most gorgeous pearl is nothing but the splendid coffin of a miserable minute worm.
- A noted French Authority.
Jesus used pearls to describe "the kingdom of Heaven. . . . like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all he had, and bought it."
to pearls in several plays:
The liquid drops of tears that you have
shed shall come again, transformed to
- (Richard III, 4: iv: 322).
My thoughts arise
and fade in solitude;
The verse that would invest them
Like moonlight in the heaven of a
How beautiful they were, how firm,
Flecking the starry sky like woven pearl.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley, My Thoughts, 1824.