Bead Library: Pearls

Pearls from Arabia to India and China | Pearls

Pearls from Arabia to India and China

By Beverly Fernandes

Pearls have been found in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Hormuz (now the Persian Gulf) for the last 6,000 years. These two bodies of water lie on either side of Arabia and have provided pearls to both Europe and Asia. Other ancient sources of pearls are the gulf of Mannar between the Island of Sri Lanka and India, the warm waters of southeast Asia, and most of Polynesia. Pearls were sought after by rich and powerful people throughout the Far East. Arabia was a major source of small baroque (uneven or oddly shaped) pearls, most of which were traded to Europe or India, but Pearls were not generally popular on the Arabian peninsula.

One pearl necklace found in China comes from a royal tomb and dates to 608 A.D. This is a rare find. Most of the pearl jewelry we know of from this period comes from royal portraits and very few of these have survived. Pearls were most popular from the17th century to the end of the 19th century. The Manchu dynasty was especially fond of pearls and believed the finest ones came from the fresh water mussels of Manchuria, their ancestral homeland. One portrait shows a Manchu lady wearing an elaborate headdress with strands of pearls hanging down from the sides. The communist revolution at the beginning of the 20th century made jewelry unfashionable in China, but that is changing since the death of Mao and the easing of communist rule.

The story is a little different in India where pearls appear in paintings in abundance. These paintings, "Persian Miniatures" are finely detailed and were used as official records of the participants at many royal ceremonies. Each shows a small but very accurate portrait (including clothing) of each person at a particular ceremony.

These miniatures were most popular beginning in the 1600s, during the Mogul period, and many pieces of jewelry from this period survive in private collections and in museums. One of the most popular styles of pearl jewelry was long strands of matched pearls with ruby and emerald accents.

Pearls and precious stones were worn by both men and women in the Mogul Court. In fact India was both a source and a trading center for pearls and gems. The lavish use of pearls was both an ornament and a statement of power. Pearls and colored stones were worn as jewelry, sewn onto clothing, mounted into sword belts and armor, and added to nearly every decorative item you could imagine. Indians considered the pearl to represent the moon as a symbol of perfection. The only gem more popular was the diamond. While the Mogul court no longer exists, pearls continue to be popular throughout India and southeast Asia.


American Museum of Natural History on the web
Handbook of Gem Identification by Richard T. Liddicoat, Jr.
Jewelry 7,000 Years by Hugh Tait
The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present by Lois Sherr Dubin

About the Author

Beverly Fernandes has been beading since 1969. Since moving to Eugene in 1998 Bev has worked primarily with beads, her first loves have always been her husband John and beadwork. Bev works primarily with Japanese Cylinder Beads known as Delicas. They come in over 600 colors and textures, so Bev can practically paint with beads. Most pieces are worked in peyote or gourd stitch, a form of bead weaving that has been found in Egyptian tombs and has since been practiced by nearly every culture that has worked with beads. Beverly has a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology. She studies archaeology and bead history.
All article text and photos Harlequin Beads & Jewelry unless otherwise noted.
Text and photos may not be used without permession from Harlequin Beads & Jewelry.

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