The Pearl History in a Nutshell

by Anna Semiachko September 21, 2018

The Pearl History in a Nutshell

In the Beginning was the Pearl…

Pearl is known to be one of the oldest gems in the world and it is often called “Queen of the Gems” for its rarity and elegance. People believe that the first pearl was discovered by early men when they were looking for food on the sea shore. The beauty of the unexpected find conquered the people’s hearts from the first sight.

Pearls are produced by a living organism and are not mined from the earth as many other gemstones are. That is why people have discovered them earlier and started using them since the birth of jewelry making.

The earliest record of pearl use in decorative objects date to 4000 BC and was found in Egypt. From then on the popularity of pearl grew and reached it’s peak by 400-600 BC in the area of the Red Sea, the Middle East and Western Europe.

Pearls started to become popular among the Asian ruling class as early as 2300 BC and were worn to highlight the high status in society, wellness and nobility.

Pearls already had very high value back in the days. Before cultivating pearl oysters, pearl hunters had to risk their lives diving for them sometimes up to 30 meters deep. Pearl divers had the ability to keep their breath under water up to 5 -10 minutes. A ton of oysters taken out of the water would result in only 2-3 pearls of the desired quality. Pearl hunting caused extinction of some oyster species over the years and was damaging the marine ecosphere. Wild-grown pearls became harder and harder to find therefore their price was rising too.

Wearing pearls was a privilege of the royalty and aristocracy, the money worth for a high quality pearl jewel could fund a whole military campaign and could cost up to 40 million modern American dollars. 

Colonization Period: The New World – The Land of Pearls

The discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus became a significant milestone in the pearl history. Indigenous population were already using pearls for their jewelry. Central and South America turned out to be rich in the precious gemstone.

English, Spanish and French colonizers quickly realized the value of their discovery and organized multiple pearl diving activities on the controlled territories. The New World got another name - “The Land of Pearls”. The demand for pearl necklaces, earrings, bracelets and dress decoration was rising constantly among the European high society and the pearl hunting resulted in devastating the natural sources in the exploited areas.  

The Revolution in the Pearl Industry: From Diving to Farming

The pearl industry needed a revolution and it did happen. Scientists were struggling to find a way to create a pearl in controlled environment, without damaging the oyster. All attempts have been failing until 11th of July 1893 when Kokichi Mikimoto a Japanese entrepreneur, son of a simple noodle shop owner, created the world's first cultured pearl inserting by hand an nucleus into an oyster to stimulate it to form a pearl.

It took Mikimoto another 12 years to achieve a spherical pearl form and about 27 years to produce a commercially viable harvests. 

Another difficulty was hiding in the people’s mindset: it took time to educate the pearl buyers on the origin of the cultivated pearl. Even though the scientific proof confirms no difference in nacre qualities between a wild grown pearl and a cultivated one, farmed pearls were often confused with fake pearls on the dawn of the pearl farming industry.

The new technology launched Japan's cultured pearl broad production and by 1935 there were 350 pearl farms in Japan producing 10 million cultured pearls every year. The technology was picked up by pearl farmers in other countries shortly after.

The Revolution in the Pearl Industry Resulted in Three Outcomes:

Firstly, the price of the pearl significantly dropped. Even though the process is still very complex and time-consuming, the pearls became easier to get.

Secondly, nobody dives for pearls any more. Previous pearl hunts destroyed most of the pearl-making oyster population – wild grown pearl can no longer be found.

And lastly pearls became more accessible for everyone who admires their luster, inner shine and raw natural beauty. You don’t need to be royalty to wear them and yet any woman can become a princess with an elegant pearl strand around her neck.

Anna Semiachko
Anna Semiachko


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