Jewellery Stories

A Brief History of the Natural Pearl

Danger, Romance and Rarity

by Lea Felicitas Döding

“Which was the first precious stone that fascinated man? Possibly the pearl, in that its beauty was at once manifest when the mollusc was opened, for it needed neither to be cut nor polished, and its discovery was probably incidental to search for food.”

– Francis Stopford, The Romance of the Jewel, London 1920

Mystery and Imagination: The Origin of the Pearl

A pearl is formed when a piece of foreign matter is introduced into a pearl-producing mollusk. In response to this irritation, the mollusk covers it with nacre. Over time, the layers of nacre accumulate, and the pearl grows in size.

Antique Belle Époque brooch set with a natural pearl, c. 1910

Before this process was discovered, the occurrence of pearls seemed to humans to follow a random pattern, which in turn invited various theories. After all, one desired explanations: Why did some rare oysters bear pearls when others did not? Why were some pearls round and white, when others were oddly shaped and pink?

One of the most enduring and widely accepted theories was proposed by Pliny the Elder in AD 77. In his Naturalis Historia, he opined that a pearl is formed when dew drops into the open shell, “by means of which it becomes impregnated; and that at length it gives birth… to the burden of its shell, in the shape of pearls, which vary according to the quality of the dew.”1

Pliny’s opinion remained unchallenged for many centuries. In the twelfth century Aberdeen Bestiary, a medieval compendium of “beasts”, a similar explanation was given: “When [the seashell] rises from its resting-place to the surface of the sea, it opens its mouth and takes in some heavenly dew, and the rays of the sun shine around it; thus there grows within the stone a most precious, shining pearl indeed, conceived from the heavenly dew and given lustre by the rays of the sun.”2

Two rings and a bracelet with natural pearls and diamonds, c. 1910, the central ring c. 1930

Doubts had arisen by the early modern period. In his Museum Museorum, 1704, German physician and curiosity collector Michael Bernhardt Valentini wrote that the belief in Pliny’s explanation had not entirely dissipated, though Valentini himself championed the more modern opinion that the pearl presented the egg of the female mollusk.3

Even the author of an 1860 book on gems and jewels still admitted that, though foreign bodies were known to be the cause of pearl formation, there still remained “many points unexplained to this day”.4

By 1893, the origin of the pearl had been so demystified that Japanese entrepreneuer Kokichi Mikimoto and his wife Ume produced the first spherical cultured pearl. However, it would take until the early 1920s for the production of Mikomoto’s pearls to be perfected and commercially viable.

“Supreme Evidences of Luxury”

Since Pliny’s days, the most treasured pearls have been the so-called Oriental pearls from the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Of course, in his words, there also dwelled “monsters so frightful and so huge”5 from out of the midst of which the pearl must be retrieved, danger thus adding to the value.

Belle Époque brooch with baroque natural pearls, c. 1895

Even in later times, with trading routes more closely connected and the origin of the pearl demystified, the natural pearl retained its aura of perilous romance. As wrote the German ladies’ magazine Bazar in 1888: “The beauty of the pearl justifies that thousands of daring divers, coastal dwellers of the Persian Gulf […] do not fear the terrors and dangers of the deep, encounters with sharks and sawfish, the deadly embrace of the octopus, in order to bring the pearl-bearing seashell, which rests on the dark ground of the sea, into the bright light of the sun. But not each of these shells rewards the toils and pains of its looter, and hundreds disappoint the hopeful expectation of delicious contents.”6

The shells of the pearl-less oysters which had thus been procured at great pains from the depths of the sea were still being used “for the manufacture of buttons, knife-handles and similar items.”7 And yet, even of the rare pearls found, not all were suitable to be made into necklaces – and among those which were, strings had to be matched for size and colour. Therefore, while it already took much time and patience to procure a single pearl, the effort to match one or more strands of pearls rendered the value of a necklace enormous.

“Pearls for your Add-A-Pearl Necklace” From: Fiftieth Anniversary Catalogue (Salem, Mass.: Daniel Low & Co., 1917), S. E-21.

In 1894, the Bazar reported that it had taken five years for the Emperor Friedrich to assemble pearls for the necklace which he gifted to his fiancee.8 This necessary custom of collecting pearls even left a mark on the German language: at least until the nineteenth century, fine pearls that could be sold by the number were called Zahlperlen (lit. “number pearls”).

Antique natural pearl necklace with diamond clasp, c. 1920.

The practice persisted well into the first three decades of the early 20th century, when “Add-a-pearl” gifts were widely advertised: small numbers of costly Oriental pearls to be given to a female child on subsequent birthdays, so that she may have enough pearls for a full necklace on the day she turned of age or married. These ceased to be advertised as affordable cultured pearl necklaces became more widely available by the mid-1920s.

Of course, finished pearl necklaces – already collected and matched by jewellers – were also available, but at accordingly steep prices. The most luxurious 105-pearl single-strand necklace in a 1924 catalogue is priced at $26,000, the same as a 16.03 ct diamond solitaire – the two costliest items in the catalogue.9 Adjusted for inflation, that corresponds to around $420,000 as of the present time.

Although the above example and the very concept of having to collect pearls for a necklace gives us an idea, in the age of cultured pearls we can barely imagine the staggering values which large natural pearls once commanded.

“Miss Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra”, Mezzotinto by Richard Houston after Sir Joshua Reynolds, London 1760s

There is a famous and oft-reproduced anecdote also recorded in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia; to Pliny himself, it counted as one of “the most supreme evidences of luxury”. The anecdote concerns Cleopatra’s wager with Antony, in which she claims she will consume ten millions of sesterces worth at a single lavish banquet. Famously, Cleopatra merely has a cup of vinegar placed before herself. In this she goes on to dissolve one of her earrings: the pair is made up of the two largest known pearls of the ancient world, valued at the exact amount which she has announced she will consume. She then drinks the pearlescent liquid. The act is so shocking to the onlookers that Lucius Plancus, arbitrator in the wager, hastens to keep her from dissolving the second pearl, proclaiming that she has won.10

Natural Beauty

Large Art Nouveau pendant-brooch with baroque natural pearls, Paris, ca. 1900

It comes as no surprise, then, that Pliny assigned to the pearl “the very highest position among all valuables”.11 Viewed within the context of its time, his assessment takes into account not only the rarity and mystery of the pearl, but also the fact that the pearl is found in a condition of perfect natural beauty, requiring no cut or further treatment. We have to keep in mind that the gemstone cuts of antiquity were still fairly simple; the diamond especially, being almost inconspicuous in its raw state, did not elicit the brilliance that we are familiar with today. By comparison, the pearl appeared as a jewel of even more dazzling beauty.

Accordingly, the Oriental pearl only had to cede its rank to the diamond once more refined diamond cuts became available, coaxing more facets and therefore more brilliance from this transparent gemstone. This was the case by the 17th century, when an early brilliant cut was employed (although we may refer to these as Peruzzi cuts, they were called brilliant cuts at the time, as there was not yet the need to distinguish them from later versions).

Belle Époque pendant set with a natural pearl and diamonds, c. 1910

In 1750, David Jeffries published a treatise on the values of diamonds and pearls. Of the pearl, he wrote: “These Jewels are next in importance to Diamonds, as they constitute the next greatest share of wealth of any other kind. The first thing to be observed concerning them, is, that what beauty they possess, is the mere product of nature; and that they are not susceptible of any advantages or help by art; a circumstance which recommends them to the esteem of the world. The only rule of valuing them, is by the square of their weight, as in the case of diamonds […].”12

Although the finer points of pricing naturally varied according to the quality of the respective pearls and diamonds, this rule of thumb stayed in place up until the early 20th century. As with a diamond, so a pearl’s value drastically increased with its size; very rare large pearls such as La Peregrina, a pearl with a five hundred year provenance, remain famed until today. As late as 1893, it was said that at a weight of over twenty grains (approx. 1.6 g resp. 8 ct), “the pearl is equal to the diamond in value.”13

What of today? With pearl diving having become mostly a thing of the past, natural pearls have become even more of a rarity. A piece of antique natural pearl jewellery is not only an investment in a thing of supreme beauty, but a reminder of the mystery that once surrounded the pearl’s origin, and of the great esteem in which this gem was held.

1Pliny, Naturalis historia, 9.54.

2Aberdeen, University of Aberdeen Library, MS 24, 96R: ”Ergo cum ascen / derit a loco suo supra mare, aperit os suum et susci\pit intra se de rore celi et circumfulget eum radius / solis, et sic fit intra eum margarita preciosa et splen / dida valde, quippe que rore celi concepta est, et radio solis / clarificata.” [, accessed 24 November 2023]

3Michael Bernhardt Valentini, Museum Museorum... (Frankfurt a. M.: Johann David Zunners, 1704), p. 495f. [, accessed 24 November 2023]

4Anita de Barrera, Gems and Jewels... (London: Richard Bentley, 1860), p. 205 et seq.

5Pliny, Naturalis historia, 9.54.

6R. T., ”Die Perle”, Der Bazar. Illustrirte Damen-Zeitung, 24. September 1888, p. 388.

7Justin Wood: The Pearl (Syracuse: H. J. Howe Inc., 1924), p. 3.

8Emilie Bratzky, ”Frauenschmuck”, Der Bazar. Illustrirte Damen-Zeitung, 29. Januar 1894, p. 57.

9Catalogue of S. Kind & Sons, Philadelphia, 1924. [, accessed 24 November 2023]

10Pliny, Naturalis historia, 9.54.


12David Jeffries, A Treatise on Diamonds and Pearls... (London: Printed by C. And J. Ackers for the Author, 1750), p. 62.

13Emma Brewer, ”Precious Stones: Their Homes, Histories, and Influence”, in The Girl’s Own Paper, 21 Oktober 1893, pp. 36-39 (p. 39).

Lea Felicitas Döding

As an art historian, I am primarily interested in the material culture of jewellery. Who would have worn a piece, when and why? What was the cultural significance of certain gemstones and jewellery designs? These are the questions I attempt to solve for the Hofer Magazine, and which often lead me into the depths of jewellery history.

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