Pearls have been worn for thousands of years. Pearl popularity reached its peak during Roman times when women of the privileged class were richly adorned with pearls. Pearls even found favor with Julius Caesar and Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in wine and drank it to prove her love to Marc Antony. The Roman general Vitellius is said to have financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
The Persian Gulf was one of the main sources of natural pearls for centuries. Venezuela and Panama became pearl sources when they were discovered by Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Balboa.
The demand for pearls dropped when diamonds were discovered in the early 1700s. The demand for diamonds soared as they became more affordable than pearls.
Pearls also lost some of their attraction due to imitations and poor quality. This led to worldwide decline in pearl consumption. However, in the late 1700s, they gained ground again when new pearl sources were discovered.
By the early 1900s, three Japanese men — Kokichi Mikimoto, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise — had independently discovered the secret of culturing pearls. Kokichi Mikimoto bought out the rights of the other two and started a huge business of pearl culturing. To this day it retains the name Mikimoto and is the premier brand of Japanese Saltwater cultured Akoya pearls.
Mikimoto is reputed to have swallowed two pearls every day of his life from the age of twenty to maintain and improve his health. The Chinese have also used pearls medicinally for thousands of years.
The appearance of cultured pearls on the world markets caused the demise of natural pearls. Though it took many years for cultured pearls to be accepted they now account for over 95% of the world’s production. Only a few Middle Eastern countries still have a preference for natural pearls today.
Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were rare and expensive, available only to royalty and the very rich. With growth of cultured pearls, the price of pearls has generally decreased.
The name Margarita means pearls. Other names such as Margaret, Peggy, Marjorie, Margot, Maggie, Gretchen, Gretal and Rita also mean pearl which signifies purity, innocence, humility and sweetness.
One of the most famous pearls in the world is called La Peregrina (the incomparable) and was found in South America. It is pear shaped and the size of a pigeon’s egg. Famous owners of this pearl have included Philip II of Spain, Mary Tudor of England and Napoleon III. The last owner is believed to be Elizabeth Taylor.