Bead Library: Pearls

The History of Pearls in the Middle East and Europe | Pearls

The History of Pearls in the Middle East and Europe

By Beverly Fernandes

Nearly every culture that has had access to the sea has valued pearls as both beautiful gems and as talismans of power. As early as 6,000 years ago, around the Gulf of Persia, ancient people were buried holding a pearl. Pearls were sought by the Sumerians and Persians. They were traded and given as tribute to the many rulers of Mesopotamia (the lands between the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea). In the Persian city of Susa, archaeologists have found a three strand pearl necklace that dates to 350 B.C. Another pearl necklace was found in Pasargardae that dates to 330 B.C. That these pearls have survived to the present is remarkable because pearls will dry out and deteriorate over time, these maybe the oldest pearls currently known.

A gold oyster shell pendant survives from the 12th dynasty in Egypt, it is inscribed with the name of Senusert in a cartouche and dates to 1950 - 1800 B.C. long before Egypt fell to Caesar. One story tells how the last great queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was supposed to have dissolved a pearl in wine to prove to Mark Anthony that she could consume the entire value of nation in a single meal. Pearls don't dissolve in wine so this is just a story.

The Greeks and Romans considered pearls to be the tears of water nymphs or angels and valued them above all other gems. Caesar was reported to have given a marvelous pearl (valued at over a million dollars today) to Servilia, the mother of Brutus. As the Roman Empire grew richer the use of pearls became more common. By 100 B.C. three pearl earring were a fashion necessity for roman matrons and the writer Seneca states that these matrons were wearing an inheritance on each ear.

When Constantinople became the Eastern Roman capital in 330 A.D. pearls were still “Queen of Gems”. The Byzantine Empire was the direct descendant of the Roman Empire and the rulers called themselves “Holy Roman Emperors”. Constantinople has been sacked repeatedly by the Mongols, the Arabs, and the Crusaders. It’s treasures are dispersed and generally lost but the mosaics in Ravenna at the cathedral of San Vitale still show the Emperor Justinian and his Empress Theodora dressed in sumptuous court finery encrusted with pearls.

By the Middle Ages about 800 - 1300 A.D., ornamentation and jewelry became religious in nature and was otherwise discouraged for the common folk. However medicine was making use of pulverized gems as remedies for many illnesses. Doctors were busily crushing pearls, mixing them with wine, and feeding them to their patients. The greater the value of the pearl the better the medicine. This is another reason why so few antique pearls are known today.

During the 1500s Henry the Eighth and later his daughter Elizabeth the First made pearls fashionable once again. All the official portraits of these English monarchs show them in pearl encrusted hats and gowns. It was a not so subtle reminder the English sea power was the real source of their wealth and power.

By the 1600s European scientists, then called natural historians, were discovering that oysters could be induced to make pearls by introducing an irritant like sand or seaweed into the oyster’s shell. This discovery was mostly ignored in Europe.


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
The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Monarchy by John Cannon and Ralph Griffiths

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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