THE ALLURE OF THE NATURAL PEARL
The simple and elegant nature of a pearl makes it one of the most enduring of jewels. Throughout history, the natural pearl has always been prominent amongst the wealthy and powerful and at certain periods in time, was made available almost exclusively to Royalty. In many cultures, pearls also represented symbols of purity, perfection and completeness, and were even believed to have medicinal powers.
As far back as 2300 B.C., Chinese records show that pearls were given to Royalty and were considered a prized possession. During the Oing, or Manchu Dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911, pearls were especially popular and used by the Imperial family and the wealthy elite to enhance costumes and furnishings. Ancient Hindu texts from India also repeatedly refer to pearls, stating from one source that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl. In Sanskrit, an ancient language of India, the pearl was known as sasi-ratna or 'gem of the moon.' And the Royal Treasuries of the Maharajas' of India were also known to have overflowed with these natural wonders.
Ancient Romans highly valued pearls as a symbol of prestige. Perhaps the most celebrated historical reference to pearls in Roman history involved a bet between Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his book, Natural History, during a banquet given by the Queen for the Roman leader, she wagered that she could present the most expensive meal known to man. With only a glass of vinegary wine placed in front of her, she removed one of her pearl earrings, worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold, and dropped it into the wine. The pearl dissolved in the acidic substance and she drank it, winning her wager.
The Elizabethan period was known as 'the age of the Pearl' due to their unrivalled status and Queen Elizabeth I prized these gems above all others. At the turn of the 20th century, a period defined by new industrial fortunes and ornate style, pearls were favored by American society figures as well as with Royalty and titled families from Britain to Russia.
The natural pearl is formed when an irritant, such as a piece of sand, works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel, or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid called nacre. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed. During the long history of pearls, the principal oyster beds have been in the Persian Gulf in the Basrah region, along the coast of Bahrain and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and also in the Red Sea. Today, the near exhaustion for natural pearl harvesting has resulted in their finite supply, adding to their allure and to their ever-increasing value.
Two of the most expensive natural pearl necklaces ever offered at auction were sold within Christie's salesrooms. A single strand necklace belonging to Barbara Hutton and reputed to have once been owned by Marie Antoinette was sold in November 1999 for $1.4 million. More recently, Christie's sold in November 2004, a double-strand natural pearl necklace for $3.1 million.