Perhaps the best-loved gems of all time, pearls—natural and cultured—occur in a wide variety of colors. The most familiar are white and cream, but the palette of colors extends to every hue. Natural pearls form around a microscopic irritant in the bodies of certain mollusks. Cultured pearls are the result of the deliberate insertion of a bead or piece of tissue that the mollusk coats with nacre.
The main color, or bodycolor, is often modified by additional colors called overtones, which are typically pink (sometimes called rosé), green, purple, or blue. Some pearls also show the iridescent phenomenon known as orient.
People have coveted natural pearls as symbols of wealth and status for thousands of years. A Chinese historian recorded the oldest written mention of natural pearls in 2206 BC. As the centuries progressed toward modern times, desire for natural pearls remained strong. Members of royal families as well as wealthy citizens in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere treasure natural pearls and pass them from generation to generation.
People have coveted natural pearls as symbols of wealth and status for thousands of years. A Chinese historian recorded the oldest written mention of natural pearls in 2206 BC. As the centuries progressed toward modern times, desire for natural pearls remained strong. Members of royal families as well as wealthy citizens in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere treasured natural pearls and passed them from generation to generation.
From those ancient times until the discovery of the New World in 1492, some of the outstanding sources of natural pearls were the Persian Gulf, the waters of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Chinese rivers and lakes, and the rivers of Europe.
During Christopher Columbus’s third (1498) and fourth (1502) voyages to the New World, he repeatedly encountered native people adorned with natural pearls. His discovery of natural pearl sources in the waters of present-day Venezuela and Panama intensified demand in Europe. However, within a hundred years, these natural pearl sources had declined due to overfishing, pearl culturing, plastic buttons, and oil drilling.
The first steps toward pearl culturing occurred hundreds of years ago in China, and Japanese pioneers successfully produced whole cultured pearls around the beginning of the twentieth century. These became commercially important in the 1920s (about the same time natural pearl production began to decline). From the 1930s through the 1980s, pearl culturing diversified and spread to various countries around the world.
Pearls are treasures from the Earth’s ponds, lakes, seas, and oceans, and they’ve always embodied the mystery, power, and life-sustaining nature of water.
The spherical shape of some pearls led many cultures to associate this gem with the moon. In ancient China, pearls were believed to guarantee protection from fire and fire-breathing dragons. In Europe, they symbolized modesty, chastity, and purity.