The 4000 Year History of Pearls

Pearls have been prized and collected for more than 4000 years, giving them the title of the world's oldest gem.

The Beginning History of Pearls

Pearls have long been treasured and highly valued in many cultures throughout history. As far back as 2300 BC, Chinese records indicate that pearls were the prized possessions of (and gifts to) royalty. In India, ancient Hindu texts repeatedly refer to pearls, stating in one place that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl. In ancient Egypt, mother-of-pearl was used for decorative purposes as far back as 4000 BC, although the use of actual pearls did not come until much later -- perhaps the 5th century BC.

Pearls in Roman History

In ancient Rome, pearls were a highly prized accessory, and worn as a symbol of wealth and prestige. They were such a status symbol, that an effort was actually made to prohibit the wearing of pearls by those not deserving of them. Perhaps the most celebrated incident in Roman history involving pearls has to do with a banquet given by Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen, for the Roman leader Marc Antony. The banquet was described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his book, "Natural History". Although some current historians dispute the details and significance of the banquet, there is general agreement that the incident described did indeed take place. The essence of the story is that Cleopatra wagered Antony that she could give the most expensive meal ever provided. When the only thing placed in front of her was a vessel of sour wine (i.e., vinegar), Antony wondered how she would be able to win the bet. Whereupon Cleopatra removed one of her pearl earrings -- said by Pliny to have been worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold -- and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl dissolved in the strongly acidic solution, and Cleopatra drank it down, winning her wager.

Pearls in Greek History

The ancient Greeks also highly valued pearls, using them especially at weddings, where they were said to bring love. With many natural oyster beds lying along the Persian Gulf, the Arab cultures also placed a high value on pearls, which are described in the Koran as one of the greatest treasures provided in Paradise.