Pearl -- the World's Oldest Gem

by Jue Jiang

Pinctada maximus shells and pearls, found
northwest of Australia. Photo from National
Natural History Museum, Washington, DC.
Photo by S.W. Aber; date April 22, 2009.

This webpage project was created for a gemstones and gemology course in the 2009 spring semester at Emporia State University. The assignment was to learn webpage creation, as well as present a summary of the history of pearl. For comments and concerns, email

Table of Contents


I come from China, one of the main localites of obtaining and wearing pearls today and throughout history. Many pearls in the eastern world are produced in the waters of the Indian Ocean and freshwater rivers in China especially in the area around Shanghai. Whereas, pearls in the middle and western world are produced in the salt waters of the Persian Gulf for example, and west to the freshwater rivers in the U.S. such as the Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississipi rivers ( In the eastern world, Chinese people take owning a piece of pearl jewelry for granted. A pearl necklace is the first jewelry I received as a gift from my dad. Since that time, I have always been a pearl lover for its iridescent effect, pearly-vitreous luster, and irregular or round shape.

As a stunning work of nature, pearl is a gemstone many people can afford nowadays. However in the past, pearl was coveted and owned by noble and wealthy peoples only. Pearl, renowned as Queen of Gems, has a long 4,000-year history. Today, pearls are classified into natural pearl and cultured pearl categories, with 90% of pearls on the market cultured, and only 10% natural (citation needed). Natural pearls are extremely rare, but the price of pearl has come down with the booming production of cultured pearls, especially since the early 1990s. Before the creation of cultured pearls, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved for only a few with privilege. In this report, I will provide a brief survey of the history of natural pearls, and contrast the aspects of pearl between eastern and western world.

Pearl History in Eastern World


Emperor's Court Crown in
Qing Dynasty.
China's record of pearls dates back to a 2300 BC book titled "Shu King", which describes pearls as a tribute to the king. The Emperor Han Wudi, who ruled from 141-87 BC, sent ships to the India Sea in order to get pearls. In the middle of the 11th century, Indian ambassadors went to China to pay the Emperor tribute, which was described as a golden tray full of pearls and gold work. Some records reveal that around 1400 years ago, Chinese bought pearls from the Philippine island of Palowan, which is still a good source of pearls in the Philippines (
The Venetian explorer Marco Polo traveled to China, and in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, recorded information on pearls related to Chinese emperors. The emperor Kublai Khan, who founded the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, had a preference for robes embroidered in pearls, gold, and other jewels; the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty, who ruled China from 1661 to 1722, presented to a temple a goddess image where the torso was made of a single pearl. In 1860, British and French troops sacked the Gardens of Perfect Brightness, also known as the Old Summer Palace, and about 100 to 150 large pearls, which weighed about 35 grains each, were taken from there to England (Streeter).

Empress' Court Crown
in Qing Dynasty.


Historical records mention that the Indian Sea was one of the main locations where pearl-bearing mollusks were found. According to "The Book of the Pearl", a masterpiece of American gemologist George Frederick Kunz, an Indian fish-eating tribe discovered saltwater pearls while opening oysters for food, and they appreciated the shape and luster. Indian sacred books are full of pearl references: the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas, mentions pearls since 3000 years ago; the Atharaveda talks about an amulet made of pearls; the Ramayana, the ancient epic poem, records a necklace made with 27 pearls; one legend tells that Hindu god Krishna or Vishnu gives his daughter Pandaia pearls he found from the sea as a wedding gift ( Another legend tells that the great Gautama presented his pearl necklace to a minstrel whom he was pleased with during the celebration of the birth of his son. Pearls were very important ornaments for Indian deities, and they were often used as eyes for images of the gods. In the account by the Indian astronomer, Varahamihira, the Sun god Mithra wears pearl earrings and a crown decorated by pearls (Streeter).

Portrait of Rani Jindan Singh,
a.k.a. Jind Kaur. Portrait
date: 1863. Author:
George Richmond (1809-1896).

Indian women also value pearls and historically, they made good use of pearls to look wealthy. They dressed in cloth draperies ornamented with pearls, and they wove pearls into the hair, they wore pearl earrings, and they covered their arms with pearls. It is still a custom today that women should wear a pearl on the wedding day as an emblem of maiden purity (Streeter). The French jeweler, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, visited India in the middle of the 17th century, and he described the throne of the Grand Mogul in his Voyages book,
"The arched roof of the throne is entirely ornamented with diamonds and pearls, and all round is a fringe of pearls. Over the same stands a peacock, with its outstretched tail of blue sapphires and other colored stones; its body is of gold, ornamented with stones; and on its breast sparkles a great ruby, from which hangs a pea-shaped pearl of a yellowish color, about 200 grains. But the most costly part of this wonderful throne is the pillars which support the roof. Round these are twined rows of pearls of splendid quality, one of which weighs from six to ten carats. Four feet from the throne stand, on either side, two sun umbrellas of red velvet, embroidered in pearls and with a pearl fringe; the umbrellas stand seven or eight feet high, and their sticks glitter with diamonds, rubies and pearls" (Streeter).

Ancient Persia

According to information on sculptures and coins, the Persian Gulf has been the principal pearl source for at least 2,700 years. Mollusk beds are probably the oldest and largest in human history due to the relatively warm and shallow water of the Persian Gulf, which provides good environment for the growth of superior-quality pearls ( Persians valued pearls more highly than gold and any other gems. Pearls were not only worn by Persians as ornaments, but also played an important role in all great Persian festivals. It is said that pearls were showered upon a new king at his enthronement (Streeter).


Egypt started to use pearls as far back as the 5th century BC, and pearls were brought to Egypt from India. Egypt was once famous for conspicuous consumption of pearls. For example, a famous banquet given by the last Egyptian queen Cleopatra for the Roman leader Marc Anthony is described by the world's first gemologist Pliny in his book Natural History. Cleopatra had a bet with Marc Anthony that she could provide the most expensive meal in history; she then took off one of her pearl earrings, dissolved it in a goblet of wine, and drank it. Cleopatra won her wager, because the pearl earring she dropped in the wine was worth thousands of pounds of gold at that time (

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Pearl History in Western World


Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

The Roman ancient scholar Pliny the Elder mentioned pearls in his book "Natural History" that "the riches merchandise of all, and the most sovereign commodity throughout the whole world, are these pearls" (G. Kunz). Being influenced by Greeks, Romans had taste for pearls. Pearls were brought to Europe from the East in the very earliest times. Romans collected pearls from every Eastern place they went, and then they started to search every European river for pearls. The competition for pearls was so severe that laws were made to deprive ordinary people's right to wear pearls, and the number and value of the pearls worn in a public occasion represented a Roman's social status ( It is said that the third Roman Emperor Caligula adored pearls, and he even had his slippers embroidered with pearls.

After the fall of Rome, new elite started to emerge, and they continued the search for pearls, which were stored in the wardrobes of the royal family. It is recorded that Henry VIII wore a purple velvet coat clasped with buttons of diamonds, rubies, and oriental pearls, and the collar was amply embroidered with pearls and other gemstones. His bride, Anne of Cleves, wore a gown richly ornamented with pearls. Queen Mary's wedding dress was thickly bordered with pearls and diamonds, and the sleeves were decorated with pearls and diamonds. Elizabeth wore a dress set with large pearls at a tournament in Mary Queen's reign in 1554. Wife of Henry IV of France, Marie de Medici, wore a gorgeous dress adorned with 3000 diamonds and 32,000 pearls at the baptism of her son.

The royalty wore pearls in every possible way, on the body, on word, on clothes, on hats, on shoes, and on the crowns. Centuries of paintings depict nobles wearing pearls; by the time when photographs were available, royals would like to take pictures wearing all their pearls at one time to show their wealth. In the 18th century, especially after the French Revolution, gemstones including pearls were less extravagantly used, and people tended to dress more simply (Streeter).

North America

Native Americans discovered freshwater pearls at Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins, and they valued their beauty, using them as jewelry and for trade. Freshwater pearls later became a main export from North America to Europe till the late 1800s and early 1900s, when a Japanese, Kokichi Mikimoto, lauched the cultured-pearl industry ( As in Eastern world, so in North America, pearls were worn by the natives, presented as tribute, and were used to decorate the gods and their temples. Montezuma, the Governor of Mexico, sent Ferdinand Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, necklaces of rubies, emeralds and pearls, which later he sent to Charles V. In Europe. The temple which Montezuma prayed in had walls adorned with pearls and other gemstones. In 1539, Fernando de Soto, a Spanish explorer, found a great quantity of pearls in his expedition against Florida, and he was received a long string of pearls as a present. As in Egypt, so in Florida, pearls were buried with kings. Some baskets full of pearls were found by Soto's soldiers in a coffin (Streeter).

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Webpage created: April 26, 2009; last update: May 6, 2009.