A Brief History of the Pearl

I wrote the following as a submission for a writing competition – the Cassandra Jardine Memorial Prize 2021 – run by the Telegraph.
Note: I don’t particularly like the title – suggestions welcome.

“The pearl is the queen of gems and the gem of queens”

Grace Kelly

Today is the first of June – the start of summer. Weddings and Wimbledon come out in full force; everyone rushes outside, eager to chase the unusually warm sun before the weather recedes back to grey again. Those who are born this month are lucky for many reasons, not least because June’s birthstone happens to be the pearl. The coveted “accidental” gemstone gently gleams throughout history, donning the ears, necks and torsos of ancient leaders, warriors, royalty, movie stars etc. With the revival of the pearl in street-style fashion this year, let us remember its origins and the surprisingly significant part it has played throughout human history.

When we think of pearls, we may imagine flawless white spheres strung across the décolletage of a wealthy older lady who might clutch them in times of distress. Arguably the classic archetype, this well-to-do image has been sustained over the last one hundred years or so though the origins of pearls’ exclusivity goes back much further. Their popularity and accessibility flourished when Kokichi Mikimoto, known as “the Pearl King”, successfully produced the world’s first cultured pearls in 1893. His ambition was for his creations “to adorn the neck of all women around the world.” Before this, only natural pearls were available, each one individually harvested by fearless deep divers in eastern seas, making them extremely rare and very expensive. Their availability was sequestered to those only at the apex of ancient society. In the wild, less than one in a thousand oyster-shells may produce a pearl during their lifetime. The largest natural pearl in existence is known as the Pearl of Lao Tzu, found in the Palawan Sea in the Philippines by a Filipino diver. This non-nacreous, lumpy whopper was discovered in a giant clam, coming in at 24cm in diameter and weighing nearly 6.5kg, it has previously been valued at $93,000,000 (2007).

For centuries, the pearl has been idolised for its wholesome beauty, a tangible metaphor of triumph despite adversity through its own, natural process. A pearl is created when a parasite or piece of grit enters the shell of an oyster, clam or mussel. In response, layers of aragonite and conchiolin are produced, the same materials that also make up its shell. This leads to the creation of a material called nacre, more commonly known as mother-of-pearl, which encases the irritant and protects the mollusc from further damage. The thickness of the nacre determines both the pearl’s lustre and how long it will last in the outside world. When pearls are cultivated commercially, the irritant is manually inserted and consistently monitored to encourage the production of nacre and define the desired shape. The existence of coloured pearls depends on the shade of the mollusc’s shell or if the nacre is pigmented, allowing for black, green, pink, yellow etc. variations. Much like gemstones, the monetary value of a cultured pearl is determined on its size, shape, colour and lustre.

Pearls have been splendidly prevalent throughout history. As early as 2300BC, they were presented as gifts to Chinese royalty to symbolise the wealth and purity of the wearer. According to legend, Cleopatra had crushed pearls added to her wine goblets to prove to Marc Antony that she could give the most expensive dinner in history. During the Dark Ages, knights wore white pearls on the battlefield, believing they would keep them safe from harm.

The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have been deemed “The Pearl Age”, largely thanks to Queen Elizabeth I and her love for them (wishing perhaps to compare her own pallid purity with the lavish jewellery pieces she owned). We need only look to her famous portraits to see her admiration for pearls as they crown her fiery hair, protrude from the bulbous sleeves of her gowns, and drape in great swathes around her neck. In 1581, Elizabeth decreed the “Order of the Pearl”, “for the protection of the Pearl and her magic”, solidifying her affection for the natural, iridescent miracle. Keen to match with the trends of royalty, noblemen and women exhausted the desire for pearls in Western Europe. Due to this nationwide infatuation, oyster populations had dramatically declined by the nineteenth century. Luckily, Kokichi Mikimoto and his ingenious cultured pearls soon came into effect and were very well received the world over. One might say that the rounded pearl we know and think of today pointedly brings the natural world and the manmade world into harmony. Yet pearls have not floated through the centuries unscathed by scandal as their demure image might denote.

In 1913, “The Mona Lisa of Pearls” was stolen from jewellery trader, Max Meyer, in London’s Hatton Garden. The great pearl heist involved the theft of a necklace made up of 61 blush-pink pearls (worth an estimated £17 million in today’s money), a masterpiece which had taken ten years of work, matching and assembling each sphere. At its centre, a large drop pearl that had belonged to the Portuguese royal family resided. Reading more like an Agatha Christie novel, the reports state that Meyer had lent the piece to a Parisian dealer only for the deal to fall through. The necklace was returned to the trader by registered post, the package secured with three undisturbed monogrammed seals. However, when Meyer opened the package, he discovered eleven lumps of sugar instead of the precious necklace. Scotland Yard were brought in, and suspicions quickly turned to notorious jewel-thief, Joseph Grizzard. Undercover police arrested Grizzard and his gang, discovering they had stalked the transaction between Meyer and the French trader, closely following the package’s journey. They bribed a postman for access to his bag, replacing the jewels in the package with the same weight of sugar cubes and resealing it with a forgery of the jeweller’s seal. However, there were still three pearls missing. The police later found out that a piano-maker came upon a small package in the gutter a few days after the incident. Believing the contents to be simple beads, the piano-maker gave one to a street urchin to use as a marble before handing the other two over to the police once he was told of their worth. It might be worth keeping your eyes open for the last pink pearl hidden somewhere in the streets of London…

Strands have adorned famous women in fashion and film more recently – the wearer and their pieces collaborating as timeless icons. Coco Chanel is quoted to have said: “a woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls”. The celebrated fashion designer’s infamous, classic pairing of an LBD with a pearl necklace is still imitated today. Elizabeth Taylor famously wore the incredible La Peregrina, gifted to her by Laurence Olivier. One of the largest, naturally symmetrical pearls in existence, it was found some 500 years ago off the island of Panama by African slaves.

The pearl has clearly made a comeback…with dispelled associations of outdatedness.

As mentioned, there has been a resurgence in pearl jewellery in today’s streetwear. Vivienne Westwood’s iconic logo pendant hanging on a string of pearls that has been chosen as an ‘it’ item this year, seen on the likes of Hailey Bieber and many, many other influencers on various platforms. In a refreshing turn of easy-to-wear opulence, famous male stars are also wearing pearls as an exciting fashion choice. To name a few, Harry Styles, A$AP Rocky and Drake have all been photographed in them, breaking the rules of expectation and making such necklaces stylish again – and not just for women. This renaissance revives a classic trend, embracing old-school chic and making it cool again. The pearl has made a comeback, catapulted back onto the high street with dispelled associations of outdatedness.

Looking to art and literature, the pearl represents the convergence of numerous cultures and worlds both old and new. A poignant example of such a conflict may be found in John Steinbeck’s novella, The Pearl (1947). The story is revered for its beautiful telling of the life of a pearl-diver, at the same time exploring the human psyche surrounding the fight between good and evil, interposed by overt greed, sacrifice, and social defiance. Defining its place in art history too, it would be remiss to not mention Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (ca. 1665). Our eyes are at once drawn to the large opalescent hanging from her ear, representing her femininity along with a subtle suggestion of wealth, elegance and flamboyance that characterises both the portrait and its subject.

Of course, you can buy imitation pearls, and good ones at that. The “bite-test” is a rudimentary way to see if your pieces are legitimate (if the texture of the piece feels rough against your teeth, the specimen is real). But I would argue there is an intangible pricelessness in spending a bit more, if possible, for the real thing. Pearls don’t tarnish of course, but they are soft so be sure to take care of them with a polishing cloth and transport them in soft pouch so they might last for a lifetime. One of the most precious things I own is a necklace of smaller, natural pearls that I was given by my mother, which she had inherited from her late mother some years ago. I hope to give it to my child one day. The idea that the necklace has had front-row viewing of significant moments across all of our lives, means the world to me. I’m not sure I’ve ever expressed how much.

Pearls provide an inheritance of our history, oftentimes quite literally, continuing a collective awe and appreciation of nature’s abilities.The wonder of pearls lives on, more readily available than ever in their extensive history for all to enjoy. They have always been considered the epitome of elegance, femininity and inner strength. After all, diamonds may be made under pressure, but pearls are created through grit and determination.