The Power of Pearls: Why They’ve Been Coveted Throughout History

By Chere Di Boscio

What do the ancient Egyptians, Marge Simpson, Grace Kelly, Coco Chanel, Margaret Thatcher and the Maharajah of Baroda have in common? Well, their shared love of pearls, of course!

Since ancient times, these small, lustrous beads of the sea have been coveted by all who laid eyes on them. Long before they were mentioned in the Bible and the Koran, Alexander the Great was stirring a lust for pearls in the West via his trade with the East; during the Middle Ages, they were worn by royalty to symbolise power, and Elizabeth I is depicted resplendent in pearls in the Armada Portrait (below) with a single, strategically placed pendant ‘below her waistline’ to signify her virginity.

Today, thanks to cultivation techniques founded by Makimoto in Japan, pearls are more accessible to the masses than ever before, and given their beauty and environmental friendliness, that’s a good thing.


Better Than Anything Mined

Pearls are undoubtedly more eco-friendly than mined gems, since we don’t need to cut down forests and rip the earth apart to find them. That being said, most pearl farms do have a few eco-caveats, however. For example, freshwater pearl farming may act as the aquatic equivalent of monoculture farming, dominating and damaging other indigenous flora and fauna. Moreover, cleaning the barnacles that inevitably plague the molluscs in which pearls grow can lead to water pollution, unless this is done ecologically.

Fortunately, there are increasingly ‘green’ cleaning options, including introducing barnacle-eating fish species to naturally consume the pests, and there are even a new organisation, Sustainable Pearls, which is planning to introduce Green Certification Standards for the pearl industry which will allow for consumers to track individual pearls through the market, making the buying process more transparent.

So, you can rest assured that there are indeed eco-friendly ways to harvest pearls, be it in freshwater or the sea. If you’re not sure what the difference is between these two kinds of pearls, both are equal in lustre, and the quality of the pearls is just as good to the untrained eye, though sea pearls are more valuable. Freshwater pearls are probably more popular, though, mainly due to their lower price. The size of freshwater pearls range in size from from 5mm to 13mm – some sea water pearls are larger. If you decide to buy any pearl jewellery, make sure you buy from a reputable seller, as glass fakes can easily fool a non-expert.



A Pearly Feast

If you’re a fan of pearls and want to learn more about their history, you can feast your eyes on some of the most impressive pieces of jewellery ever to be fashioned by pearls at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Pearls’ show, an exhibition that is held in conjunction with the Qatar Museums Authority and is co-curated by the SMA’s Hubert Bari.


At the show, which runs from September 21 until January 2014, viewers can gaze at baubles worn in ancient Mesopotamia from around 2,300 BC; pearly treasures from ancient Rome and Byzantium, right up to pieces sported by modern icons like Coco Chanel , Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. Particularly poignant is the single pearl earring worn by Charles I at his execution in 1649 – no one ever said pearls brought good luck!

Derived from nature, simple yet exotic, understated yet dazzling, the power of pearls has always been to add substance to the magic and metaphor of adornment.

For more about the V&A show, click here.

Chere Di Boscio

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