The History of Pearls Part 3: Pearls’ Influence on Culture

The History of Pearls Part 3: Pearls’ Influence on Culture

Pearls are a true treasure of the ocean. Not only did people throughout millennia appreciate and treasure pearls for their exceptional beauty, but pearls captured imaginations and instilled a yearning desire for ownership.

What makes pearls so significant compared to other gems is that they don’t need to be cut and polished like others to bring out their beauty – they come out of the oyster in its full glory. 

In this third part of the series we’re looking at the influence pearls have had on culture throughout the ages.  

Myths and Religious Scripts

Pearls are frequently mentioned in religious scripts – Christianity, Hindu, and Islam – and often symbolizes purity and perfection. Here are some examples:
  • The Breastplate of Aaron as described in the Bible was a ceremonial religious garment set with 12 gemstones. These gemstones represented the 12 tribes of Israel, but also corresponded with the 12 signs of the zodiac and the 12 months of the year. It is said that the pearl is the birthstone of June because of the corresponding location on the breastplate.
  • The gates of heaven are described in the Bible as carved out of pearls.
  • Khrishna, the Hindu god, gave pearls to his beloved wife at their wedding.
There are also many myths and legends around pearls. Here are a few examples:
  • The Persians believed that pearls were the tears of gods, fallen into the ocean and settling inside oysters. 
  • The Greeks believed that the goddess of love, Aphrodite, shed tears of pearls. 
  • The Polynesians believed that pearls were a gift from Oro, their god of love and fertility. They believed that he came to the Island on a rainbow and imbued the beautiful gems with a myriad of colors.

Chinese Pearl History

Dowager Cixi, the Chinese Empress (1835-1908) were very fond of her pearls. She believed that pearls kept her calm when stressed, and she would hold the pearls in her hands whenever she had to make difficult decisions.   

Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians

The Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians valued and adorned themselves with the lustrous gems for hundreds of years. The Romans’ lust was so great that they often plundered conquered territories in search of the gems. Here are a few interesting stories from that period:
  • One of the most famous stories is about Cleopatra (69BC-30BC), the Queen of Egypt. It is said that she crushed one of her pearl earrings into a glass of wine when dining with Marc Anthony. She wanted to prove to him that she could give the most expensive meal in history.
  • During Pompey’s (106BC - 48BC) military campaign to the East, he collected a significant amount of war booty, which he displayed in his triumphal procession when he returned to Rome. Amongst the display were 33 crowns encrusted with pearls and a large portrait of Pompey rendered with pearls. This display elevated his profile as a successful commander in the eyes of the Roman elite. 
  • The Roman Emperor Caligula (12-41AD) made his horse a consul and a priest, and decorated it with a pearl necklace.
  • It is said that the Roman Emperor Vitellius (15-54AD) paid for an entire military campaign while he was still a General with the proceeds of selling one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
  • Roman women wore pearls to bed so that they could be reminded of their wealth as soon as they woke up.

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, pearls were used as talismans since people believed that they would provide protection during battle. Kings and other nobles took their valuables onto the battlefield in the hopes that the mysterious powers of pearls would protect them, causing many pearls to be lost or destroyed.  The Roman Catholic church accumulated a tremendous amount of pearls during the 7th to 11th centuries. These gems and other treasures were offered up by churchgoers, often as penance for their sins. With so many built-up treasures, the church started to find creative ways to use these gems. One example is a religious manuscript, the Ashburnham manuscript of the Four Gospels (once owned by JP Morgan) which was decorated with jewels. The cover was made up of gold, colored stones, and about 98 pearls, and took about four years to complete.   

European Courts and the New Worlds

From around the 14th century, the monarchies in Europe decorated themselves lavishly with pearls. This royal passion for pearls was one of the reasons why the Spanish launched armadas to the Mexican Gulf, the British to Australia, and the French to French Polynesia. When the Europeans arrived in these new territories, the indigenous people already adorned themselves with pearls. Here are a few examples:
  • In the South Sea, the natives used natural pearls as part of religious ceremonies and dream interpretation.
  • The Native Americans collected freshwater pearls and shells from the Mississippi River and turned them into necklaces, sewn them onto headdresses and set them into copper ornaments.

Back in Europe, pearls were perceived as the ultimate display of wealth. The difficulty in gathering pearls from nature is the main reason why pearls were so exclusive, and so expensive that only the super-rich could afford it. Because of their popularity, the Duke of Saxony, England, passed a law in 1612 allowing only the royals to wear pearls. Doctors, rich merchants, and their wives were suddenly excluded, and the desire for these gems instantly increased.

Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558-1603) always wore a great deal of pearls. She never went out in public without elaborate costumes, heavy makeup and jewelry, which you can also see in portraits painted of her throughout her lifetime. 

Another interesting story from this time is the one of La Peregrina, the famous pearl the size of a quail egg. This pearl was found by a slave diver in the Gulf of Panama (or possibly Venezuela) in 1579. The pearl made its way into the Spanish Crown Jewels during the reign of King Ferdinand V. It was later presented to Queen Mary I of England (Bloody Mary). After Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain, he made his brother, Joseph, the king of Spain. Five years later he was defeated by the Duke of Wellington, and was forced to flee Spain. He took some of the Spanish crown jewels with him, including La Peregrina, which he later sold to James Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn. In 1969, Richard Burton bought La Peregrina on auction for his wife, Elizabeth Tailor, who wore the pearl in its original setting in the 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days.  

Modern History

Lastly, we come to the 20th century. Some famous pearl lovers included Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, Princess Diana, and more recently, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.

Jackie Kennedy’s famous strand of pearls was apparently not pearls, but made of glass. In the cult movie, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Audrey Hepburn wore the iconic 5-strand pearl necklace, inspiring women around the globe to copy her elegant style.

In 1917, the jeweler Pierre Cartier bought his first shop on New York’s Fifth Avenue with $100 in cash and a two-strand natural pearl necklace, which was valued at $1 million at the time. The same necklace was auctioned in 1957 for only $157,000.

You don’t need to visit a shop on Fifth Avenue if you’re looking for the perfect pearl jewelry design. You can sit on your couch and browse our online shop instead – you’re bound to find something that you love at an affordable price.