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Pearls Throughout History

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In ancient times the pearl was considered to be not only the most valuable gem, but also a symbol of perfection.  The oldest known piece of pearl jewelry is Persian and dates to 520 B.C., but many believe that pearls were discovered long before then. The Indians, Chinese, Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Romans all sought after pearls.

Pearls have been associated with weddings for thousands of years going back to ancient India and Greece. In ancient Greece, pearls were given as bridal gifts because they were believed to bring love and happiness. Pearls in Roman times were considered to be so valuable that only emperors and the Roman nobility could afford them.

For most of recorded history the primary source for salt water pearls was from the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of India and Sri Lanka and the Red Sea. Chinese pearls were mainly from freshwater lakes and rivers, while Japan produced limited quantities of salt water pearls.  After 1492 and the discovery of the New World, both freshwater and salt water pearls became major exports to Europe.

These New World pearls came from Central and South America, the Caribbean and from the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins.  White saltwater pearls from Venezuela and what is now Panama competed with pearls from the Persian Gulf and black saltwater pearls from Mexico competed with Tahitian black pearls. The  U.S. became a major exporter of both freshwater pearls and mother of pearl buttons in the 1800’s.

This all changed in the early 1900’s when the Japanese discovered how to cultivate pearls.  Kokichi Mikimoto discovered a way to produce hemispherical pearls (Mabe Pearls – they are attached to the oyster shell) in 1896 and round salt water pearls in 1916.

He did not invent the culturing technique for creating “free or non-attached” pearls, two other Japanese  researchers, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise developed the technique separately about 1907.  What Mikimoto did do was to popularize cultured pearls and make them available to the general public.

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