Pearls (Perlen) have been known and valued in many cultures throughout history. As far back as 2300 BC Chinese records indicate that pearls were prized possessions of (and gifts to) royalty. Ancients Hindu texts from India also repeatedly refer to pearls, stating in one place that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl.
In ancient Egypt mother-of-pearl was used for decorative purposes as far back as 4000 BC, although the use of actual pearls did not come until much later -- perhaps the 5th century BC. The ancient Romans valued pearls highly, especially as a symbol of wealth and prestige - so much so that an effort was made to prohibit the wearing of pearls by those not deserving of them. Perhaps the most celebrated incident involving pearls in Roman history has to do with a banquet given by Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen, for the Roman leader Marc Anthony.
The banquet was described by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his book, Natural History. Although some current historians dispute the details and significance of the banquet, there is general agreement that the incident described did indeed take place. The essence of the story is that Cleopatra wagered Anthony that she could give the most expensive meal ever provided. When the only thing placed in front of her was a vessel of sour wine (i.e., vinegar), Anthony wondered how she would be able to win the bet. Whereupon Cleopatra removed one of her pearl earrings -- said by Pliny to have been worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold -- and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl dissolved in the strongly acidic solution, and Cleopatra drank it down, winning her bet.
The ancient Greeks also valued pearls, using them especially at weddings, where they were said to bring love. With many natural oyster beds lying along the Persian Gulf, the Arab peoples also placed a high value on pearls, which are described in the Koran as one of the greatest treasures provided in Paradise.
In the Western Hemisphere, too, Native Americans valued the freshwater pearls they harvested from lakes and rivers.The story is told, for example, of a Native American princess who presented Hernando de Soto with gifts of animal skins, cloth, copper and freshwater pearls. Colonisers from Spain, France and England found native tribes using pearls as jewellery and for trade.
Indeed, once the colonial powers discovered the sheer volume of pearls available in America's rivers, pearls became one of the chief products sent from the colonies back to Europe. Along with freshwater pearls from North American rivers, saltwater pearls were harvested from the Caribbean and along the coasts of Central and South America. All of these pearl supplies began to dry up during the 19th century, however, as a result of over-harvesting and the pollution caused by industrialisation. In addition to the pearls themselves, American mother-of-pearl also became a major export, both from the North American colonies and later from the United States.
A primary use of mother-of-pearl was to make shiny, iridescent buttons, of which billions were exported all over the world (mainly from Iowa) all the way up until the mid-20th century, when the invention of plastic quickly replaced mother-of-pearl for this use.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s the history of pearls reached a major turning point. At that time a number of Japanese researchers discovered independently the techniques which could be used to cause oysters to create pearls essentially "on demand."The man who finally combined the various technical processes with business acumen and worldwide marketing know-how was Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a restaurateur.
Today Mikimoto is credited with having created almost single-handedly the worldwide cultured pearl industry. The effect on the pearl industry of the discovery of pearl culturing combined with Mikimoto's marketing enthusiasm cannot be understated. Within a span of less than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of years of pearl history were rewritten.
Pearls -- historically the exclusive possessions of royalty and aristocracy -- became available to virtually anyone on the planet. Rather than pearl divers hunting, often in vain, for the elusive, naturally formed pearls, pearl farmers could now cultivate thousands upon thousands of pearls in virtually the same way as a wheat or corn farmer grows his own crop. And pearl lovers throughout the world could reap the benefits.