As the first precious stone to be worn by mankind, the pearl has an ancient and fascinating history. There is so much allure surrounding the pearl; this precious gem has notoriety in interactions between Kings and Queens, for example from Albert to Victoria as a gift for their third Wedding anniversary, and within art such as Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’, arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world.
World History of the Pearl
Acting as the most treasured gem in Western society until the nineteenth century when diamonds were introduced, pearls have significance in almost every society and culture. Pearls were originally used for medicinal purposes and in religious ornaments, and were seen to represent purity, chastity and feminine attributes. The first mention of the pearl in ancient historical evidence is in a Hindu legend about Krishna which dates back five thousand years, as well as in a three-thousand-year-old Chinese legend about a king’s daughter. At an old palace of a Persian king at Susa (in Western Iran), a pearl necklace was found which is believed to be from about 305 BCE. Pearls have also been found at other archaeological sites over the years, some even older than this.
Symbolism of the Pearl
Due to the colour and texture of pearls, many ancient societies associated them with the moon, particularly in Vedic and Japanese lore. In Chinese legend, black pearls symbolise wisdom and were thought to have been created inside the head of a dragon. Similarly to the Japanese myth that pearls came from the tears of mythical creatures, one Ancient Greek myth suggested that pearls were the solidified tears of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and were symbols of love, devotion and marriage. By Roman times, the pearl was incredibly valuable and became a public show of wealth, superiority and even virtue. In fact, the pearl was so priceless there is a famous anecdote about Cleopatra crushing one of her large and priceless pearl earrings and putting it in white-wine vinegar which she then drank to prove to her lover Mark Antony that she could throw the most expensive dinner party in history. You may also have heard of the famously bonkers Roman Emperor Caligula, who tried to make his horse, Incitatus, a Roman consul and in legend gave this same horse a pearl necklace.
The Pearl in Japanese Mythology
In ancient society in Japan, it was generally believed that tears from creatures like mermaids or angels formed pearls, which gave them a magical and mysterious association. Within the Shinto religion, pearls have a special place, here the pearl is seen to encompass positive and spiritual qualities. The pearl was classed as a precious gem, tama, which comes from mi-tama, meaning soul or spirit. This classification highlights the significance of the pearl in ancient and current Japanese religious culture. Kitsune, (a fox), in English refers to fox spirits in the context of Japanese mythology. In some legends these foxes had magical pearls or gems in their possession which were very valuable to the fox and humans.
There was also an idea of the pearl symbolically representing life, which caused women to wear them to promote fertility and pearls were sometimes put in the mouth of the dead to protect the body from decay. The pearl has also been associated with Japanese gods of luck, among other representations. Within Japanese mythology, tide jewels, which can refer to pearls, were magical gems that were used to control the waves by the sea god. During the time of Empress Jingu, legends emerged around Japan conquering Korea with tide jewels. These gems also have relation to Japanese sea dragons, or the eight dragon kings, one of which is said to have been the dragon king of sea. One legend proclaims that the sea god stole a pearl and a female pearl diver lost her life getting it back for her husband.
Before the twentieth century and in some instances afterwards, pearls were found and collected through diving, which was dangerous and difficult. Interestingly, pearl divers were predominantly female in Japan, in contrast with the rest of the world where this was generally a male activity. Natural pearls come about when a parasite or other alien substance gets into a mollusc and sticks itself between the shell and the mantel. Natural pearls can also originate from oysters that produce natural saltwater pearls. These pearls, or at least perfectly round ones, are few and far between. Cultured pearls are when someone purposefully places a shell, called a nucleus, into a pearl oyster and then harvests it after a long period of time; usually between six months to three years. White Akoya pearls, black, gold and white pearls from the South Sea (mostly Tahiti, Australia and Indonesia) and Chinese freshwater pearls are the three main types of pearls.
Japan’s Monopoly on the Pearl
Japan is home to the creator of the cultured pearl business, Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954), who effectively built an empire on the phenomenon of cultured pearls, despite coming from a relatively poor background. Although Mikimoto eventually amassed a huge fortune from this business, creating the now well-known luxury pearl company Mikimoto, his new way of collecting pearls was initially frowned upon and discredited. Many in the pearl-selling industry proclaimed that cultured pearls were not real pearls, and inferior to those found from diving. However, since Mikimoto priced his pearls initially much lower than others, cultured pearls soon swept the globe as the new sensation. Scientists quickly disproved the theories that these pearls were of a lower quality, as the process of the pearl’s creation is the same, just man-initiated. Despite his success, Mikimoto had a controversial reputation, famously setting fire to a large amount of ‘inferior pearls’ and greeting the Emperor and Empress of Japan with greetings below their status.
Pearls and Atelier Japan
Japan is still leading the way in the cultured pearl market worldwide, and retains a reputation for high value and luxury pearls whether cultured or freshwater. Atelier Japan features a stunning selection of pearl earrings, necklaces and other pearl items. These products are all carefully crafted with great attention to detail by our wonderful makers, Karafuru, an example being the Phases of the Moon necklace.