Long known as the "Queen of Gems", pearls have been favored for centuries. Officially the oldest gemstone in the world, pearls have been revered since long before history was written. For this reason, their discovery cannot be attributed to a specific person, but it is believed that they were first discovered by foragers along the coast.
Unlike gems mined from the earth, a living being produces pearls and their existence is in fact a miracle of nature. Pearls are formed when an irritant, such as a parasite or shell, accidentally lodges in the inner soft body of an oyster, causing it to secrete a crystalline substance called nacre, which accumulates in layers around the irritant until pearls form.
Until the early 20th century, the only way to collect pearls was through divers risking their lives at depths of up to 100 ft for pearls. It's a dangerous pursuit and offers little chance of success as a ton of oysters will only have three or four quality pearls.
A Symbol of Wealth and Power: Before cultured pearls were created in the early 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were almost exclusively available to the nobility and the very wealthy. One piece of jewelry that working women today can take for granted, a 16-inch thread of 50 pearls, typically costs between $500 and $5,000. At the height of the Roman Empire, when the pearl-fever was at its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed a military campaign simply by selling his mother's pearl earrings.
Traditionally, pearls were celebrated for their uniformity in size and color but now it seems that pearls of brilliant color and unusual shape are being favored by jewelers known for their brilliance to create unique jewelry combinations. From dramatic black pearls with a deep, sparkling sheen to baroque pearls, these wonders of the sea have become a must-have gem.
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