Legend has it that to impress the Romans with the vast wealth of Egypt, Cleopatra had dissolved a single pearl that was her earring in vinegar and drank it at a banquet. The pearl was reputedly worth 10 million sesterces; in the ancient world this was roughly equivalent to 312,500 ounces of silver, or 6.25 million USD today.
Fanciful story? Maybe…but pearls were indeed a whole lot more valuable in antiquity than they are today. Indeed, the Roman General Vitellius financed his military campaign against the Germans by selling just a pair of his mother’s pearl earrings. He eventually became emperor for all of 8 months. According to Pliny, the world’s first gemologist, those 2 pearls were worth 60 million sesterces, or an estimated 1,875,000 ounces of silver. At current silver prices of around $20/oz, that’s a cool 37.5 million USD. Pearls were so precious that Julius Caesar had banned women below a certain rank from wearing them. As a present to his favorite mistress, he bestowed a pearl worth 6 million sesterces.
The oldest surviving pearl necklace now rests at the Louvre in France. It belonged to a Persian princess who died in 520 BC. To the ancient Persians, pearls symbolized the moon and its magical mystery. Pearls stood for purity, chastity and feminine charm.
Pearls are the only gem that is made within the soft tissue of a living animal. Just like the shell of a clam, a pearl is made up of calcium carbonate in crystalline form that has been deposited in concentric layers over time. In his famous work The Book of Pearls first published in 1908, George Kunz described the gem thus: “Perfected by nature and requiring no art to enhance their beauty, pearl were naturally the earliest gems known to man.” Yet ironically, the turn of the last century heralded the end of pearls as the Queen of Gems with the introduction of cultured pearls by Kokichi Mikimoto. Prior to this and throughout most of history, the most common belief was that natural pearls were formed only at particular times of the year, when oysters rose to the surface of the water in the morning, opening their shells to collect dew which was then turned into pearls…
Fortunately for us today, pearls are no longer the sole purview of the elite and royalty. Cultured pearls share the same physical properties as natural pearls and are formed in live oysters. The only difference lies in the fact they were given a bit of encouragement by man in the creation process. They may no longer hold the same mystique as days gone by, we are nevertheless still captivated by its allure of perfect simplicity.