Pearl History and Famous Pearls
Pearl History and Famous Pearls
Pearls are closely linked to human cultural history. In many cultures, the origin of pearls is often explained in mythological and cosmological terms.
During the reign of Alexander the Great (4th century BC), the trade and transportation of pearls began to reach the Western world. At this time, the important producing areas of pearls were the Red Sea and the Middle East Gulf. In the Middle Ages, pearls have always been a symbol of power and purity, and many members of the royal family were keen to decorate themselves with pearl jewelry.
An important period in the history of pearls was the great voyage of Christopher Columbus and other Spanish navigators in the 15th and 16th centuries. They discovered large amounts of pearls and pearl oysters in Central and South America. This created huge wealth for the Spanish royal family and triggered the so-called "Pearl Age" among European royal families and nobles.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603) wore pearls. Source: Woburn Abbey's version of the Armada Portrait, circa 1588.
Thousands of fishermen around the world are in search of natural pearls (found in wild shells and formed without any human intervention). An interesting story about these can be read, for example, in the novel "The Pearl" by John Steinbeck.
Ceylon Pearl Oyster Auction, 1886 by Edwin Street. Source: Wikipedia Commons
In the Americas, French Polynesia, the Gulf of Mannar and other regions, in pursuit of exquisite natural pearls, wild pearl oysters have been overfished, resulting in many natural pearl oyster production areas being nearly exhausted after the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Harvesting wild shells is far from ecologically sustainable production. The low cost of cultured pearls has led to the dominance of cultured pearls. Since the 1920s, the natural pearl trade has gradually declined. Today, although the size of the natural pearl trading market is small, it is still as vibrant as it was back then.
At SSEF the Swiss Jewelery Institute has tested many of the most famous and historic natural pearls sold at auctions and by fine jewelry houses. Below are some examples of precious pearls that we have tested in recent years.
In November 2018, this historic pearl pendant belonging to Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793) sold for $36.19 million at a Sotheby’s auction in Geneva. It was a Bourbon Parmesan Part of the sale of the family jewelery collection. This natural seawater pearl is in the shape of a perfect drop, about 26 mm long, and is set on the original bow-shaped pendant together with ancient-cut diamonds. SSEF identification certificate number: 93539. Photo: Sotheby’s
In April 2015, Christie's New York auctioned a superb pearl necklace composed of 289 four strands of colored pearls. It set a new world record for US$5.09 million (SSEF identification certificate number 78724). Photo: Christie's Auction House
The Peregrina Pearl, the drop-shaped pearl pictured at the base of the necklace, was part of the late Elizabeth Taylor's stunning jewelry collection. It was sold at a Christie's auction in New York in December 2011 for US$11.84 million, making it the most expensive pearl at auction at the time. SSEF identification certificate number 59574. Photo: Christie's Auction House
In April 2014, Dolly Auction House in New York purchased a rare pair of special natural pearls for US$3.3 million, setting a world auction record for a pair of natural pearls. SSEF identification certificate number 72885. Photo: Doyle Auctioneers
The Cowdray Pearl necklace, including a pair of pearl ear clips, was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2015 for $5.3 million. This necklace originally belonged to the collection of Pearson, Viscountess Cowdray (1860 – 1932). It contains 42 pearls, some of which are of impressive size (up to 12.90 mm in diameter) and have a very charming rose red color. , purple and green iridescence. SSEF identification certificate number 67726.
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