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A history of pearls

Pearls through history

Real pearls have been prized for thousands of years, and their natural beauty and classic look has never faded. Today they are more popular and affordable than ever

There is some debate as to the earliest known pearl, with both the Jomon pearl in Japan, which is at least 5,000 years old and a pearl found at a Neolithic site in the Emirate of Umm al Quwain in the UAE, dated at between 5547 and 5235 BC, both claiming the prize.

Pearls are referenced in many ancient texts, and have been used in Chinese medicine for millennia. Incredibly rare and stunningly beautiful, they have been treasured by everyone from Cleopatra to Caligula, Elizabeth I to Elizabeth Taylor. They are mentioned in Hindu writings, in the Koran, and even in the Sermon on the Mount. The modern word, pearl, comes from the Latin pirum, which means pear, reflecting the shape of many pearls.

Famous pearls

Natural pearls were so valuable in ancient times that it is said that the Roman general Vitellius paid for a whole military campaign by selling just one pair of his mother’s pearl earrings. The infamous Emperor Caligula gave his favourite horse a pearl necklace, as well as the job of consul! Perhaps most famously of all, Cleopatra is also said to have proved the wealth and power of Egypt to Marc Anthony, by drinking a pearl dissolved in wine. This meal was estimated to be worth $10 million in today’s money, yet it was priceless in establishing Egypt’s status and avoiding a Roman invasion.

This is not the only time pearls have changed the course of history. It has been suggested that one of the reasons Julius Caesar invaded Britain was to find new pearl beds, and the pearls found in the New World by Columbus and Vasco de Balboa certainly encouraged the royal courts of Europe to continue to finance their voyages of discovery.

Modern pearls

Fortunately, thanks to the creation of cultured pearls, you don’t have to be a Roman emperor or a high-ranking royal to enjoy wearing pearls from Absolute Pearls today.

The idea of culturing pearls – by introducing the irritant artificially into the oyster or mussel – was developed by three Japanese men, Kokichi Mikimoto, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise, all working independently in the early 1900s. Mikimoto eventually combined these techniques to create the cultured pearl processes that are still used to this day. Just as beautiful as natural pearls, cultured pearls now make up the vast majority of the world pearl market.