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The History of Pearls

Pearls have an illustrious history. Chinese, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Mayan, Aztec and Incan cultural archives all recount the reverence that pearls enjoyed in these societies.

The pearl serves as an exquisite metaphor for life. A sea-borne irritant burrows its way into a living sea creature, and after many months or years of internal struggle, and only on rare occasions when circumstances are just right, does a beautiful, lustrous, natural creation emerge.

Prior to the 20th century, before the invention of cultured pearls, natural pearls were so rare that only the rich and noble elite could acquire them. No one is certain when pearls were first discovered; perhaps it was an ancient tribe along the shores of the pacific that discovered them while opening oysters for food.

Ancient literature abounds with references to pearls. Roman legend relates a story involving Antony and Cleopatra and a pair of pearl earrings. Night after night, Antony would stage extravagant meals to which the lovely Cleopatra would simply scoff. One night she wagered Antony that she could prepare the most expensive dinner in history. At the meal, Cleopatra appeared bejeweled in a pair of magnificent pearl earrings worth sixty million sesterci (1,875,000 ounces of fine silver or almost $10 million at today's prices of around $5 an ounce). At the conclusion of the meal, to remove all doubt as to its considerable expense, Cleopatra removed one pearl earring, dissolved it in a glass of vinegar, and ingested the mixture. As she proceeded to do the same with the other pearl, the judge of the wager grabbed it from her hand and promptly declared Antony the loser.

To the Ancient Persians, pearls symbolized the moon and its magical powers. The ancient Egyptians prized pearls so highly that they were buried with them. Several stories are found in the Hebrew Bible and in Hindu and Muslim mystical writings.

Once the exclusive property of nobility, today, with the advent of pearl cultivation, pearls are affordable and available to all.

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