History of Wearing Pearls in Jewelry

Hindu god Hanuman wears a strand of pearls.

When you give the gift of pearl jewelry, whether it’s a single pearl necklace or other sentimental jewelry piece, you’re following in the footsteps of some of the most legendary figures in world history. Many cultures, including the Romans, Egyptians, Chinese, Indians, Greeks, and Europeans, have valued pearl jewelry before us.

Did you know that pearls were given as gifts as early as 2300 BC? Found in the China’s Huai River, freshwater pearls were a preferred gift for Chinese royalty at that time.

In the Ramayana, a Sanskirt epic poem from 7th-century BCE India, there are references to a necklace featuring 27 pearls. After a great war, Queen Sita gives Hanuman, a monkey king who fights in the war, a necklace of pearls as a reward for his heroism.

One of the first-known examples of pearls worn as jewelry dates back to 420 BC; a sarcophagus of a Persian princess now on display at the Louvre wears a fragment of pearl jewelry.

It’s no secret that pearls were a major status symbol in Ancient Rome, so much so that Julius Caesar passed a law that prohibited non-royals from wearing pearls.

If you’ve read Homer’s epic The Iliad, you may remember the description of Juno’s pearl earrings: “In three bright drops, / Her glittering gems suspended from her ears.” The Greeks loved their pearl jewelry, especially for weddings. If you visit The Met Fifth Avenue, you can view the “Pearl and gold necklace with pendant of Eros” from 330–300 B.C.

Have you heard of the Pearl Age? Coinciding with the discovery of pearls in Central and South America in the 15th and 16th century and an increased demand for pearls in Western Europe, the Pearl Age was a time when all the stylish ladies who could afford pearls were wearing them. The royals and other members of elite society - including Elizabeth I and Marie de’Medici - were practically drenched in pearls.

Eventually, the demand for pearl jewelry became so high that oyster supplies were compromised. In the 1800s, pearls were also found in the Mississippi River, but millions of mussels were killed when people eager to collect pearls completely destroyed the natural resources.

As a result, pearl jewelry became difficult to manufacture, since natural pearls were not as readily available as they had been in the past. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Japanese researchers created an innovative method for farming pearls, and they started the cultured pearl industry to meet the continued demand for pearls. Today, natural pearls are still scarce and extremely valuable, so a gift of a single pearl necklace can make a lasting impression.

Photo credit: iAspire Media

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