Valued throughout history at one time they were more prized than diamonds. The ancient Romans were particularly fond of pearls to the extent that the ancient Roman nobleman, scientist and historian Pliny once said “it is not sufficient for them to wear pearls, but they must trample and walk over them.” Whilst Cleopatra is said to have taken a pearl from her ear and dissolved it in a glass of wine at a banquet held in honour of Mark Anthony.
The esteem bestowed upon pearls was best exemplified amongst the ruling houses of Renaissance Europe who bedecked themselves in ropes of pearls filling their treasuries with these wondrous accidents of nature. Elizabeth I is said to have owned 3000 gowns that were all encrusted with pearls. Pearls during this period held extreme power and value and at one point were so highly regarded that they were restricted to be worn only by royalty.
Their prominence continued throughout the 19th Century and as recent as 1917 Cartier acquired a Fifth Avenue mansion, then valued at one million dollars, in exchange for two rows of natural pearls. Such was the value of natural pearl that mankind has constantly devised ways of imitating pearls since antiquity. Beads of glass and wax and even hollow beads coated with a paint made from fish scales have all been used to imitate natural pearls.
In 1888 Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi devised a method of farming pearls which involved maintaining the oyster in special oyster beds and artificially introducing irritant which then stimulates the growth of the pearl, in the same year he set up his first pearl oyster farm at the Shimei inlet on Ago Bay and by the 1920s Mikimoto was able to produce cultured pearls on a commercial scale. By 1935 he had 350 farms producing 10 million cultured pearls annually. These farmed or cultured pearls while formed in a similar way to natural pearls vary considerably in value.
In addition to these salt water pearls there are also freshwater pearls, these come from a mussel and traditionally could be found in the rivers of Scotland and North Wales. Natural freshwater pearls sometimes referred to as Tay pearls, from the river Tay, are very rare but do not approach the values achieved by their natural salt water cousins. Furthermore the Chinese are able to produce Freshwater cultured pearls in such large quantities of up to 1500 tons per annum that you can now purchase them for as little as £15 a row. While the use of the triangle shell mussel instead of the cockscomb mussel now produces better quality larger and more rounded freshwater cultured pearls.
So look carefully amongst your jewellery and pearl necklaces, for amongst the rows of imitation and freshwater cultured pearls there may just be a row of natural or maybe even some Japanese cultured pearls.