WITHOUT PRICE: THE RISE AND FALL
OF A SOMETIMES-PRECIOUS GEM
Delivered to The
April 10, 2000
Pearls have this advantage over precious stones dug out of rocks, that the latter owe their luster to the industry of men; nature only, as it were, hews them out, and leaves the finishing of them to art: but the former are born with that beautiful water which gives them their value. They are found perfectly polished in the abysses of the sea. (Rees's Cyclopedia, 1813)
Pearls are not forever. Their beauty, lustrous and delicate, fades with time and is slowly destroyed, contrary to legend, by continued contact with beautiful women's (or beautiful men's) skin. Their value too has faded in and out during human history. At certain periods they have been accounted more precious than diamonds. Often they have been greatly esteemed. Just as often they have been valueless, no more than pretty marbles from the sea.
It may be that the first time anyone took
pearls seriously was in the third millennium BC, when Sumerians and their
neighbors began wading out into the
Those archaic Sumerians were more interested
in the shells than in the occasional pearl found inside. Pinctada shell, the
"mother of pearl" of commerce, is a lovely material composed entirely
of nacre, the same substance as the pearls themselves. Nacre has unexpected qualities:
soft enough to be easily cut and shaped, colored in a range from near-white to
dark gunmetal gray, surpassingly lustrous and possessed of a hard-to-describe
quality called "orient", the ability to break up reflected light into
rainbow hues. The Pinctadas of the Gulf have thin but lustrous shells that were
suitable for inlaying in furniture, making jewelry, and decorating tablewares.
They became extinct in shallow waters by Early Dynastic times, in the late 3rd
millennium. That was when deep pearl diving in the
Methods for gathering Pinctadas were basically similar in all pearl-producing areas before the introduction of first diving suits and then scuba tanks. Divers held their breaths, went down by holding heavy stones to 30-50 feet (although in a few areas they went down 100 feet or even further), collected a few oysters in the minute or so they could stay underwater, and then shot to the surface to catch their breaths and get ready for another dive. Pearl diving was a dangerous occupation, and divers were not only poor but often unfree, either actual slaves or held captive by bonds of indebtedness.
The following pages discuss several aspects of pearl history: first, the main sources of saltwater pearls; second, the freshwater and cultured variety; and third, the cross-cultural value of pearls and their role in metaphor.
Three limited pearl-producing areas in the
western part of the
The pearl beds were located in the southern
And dear as the wet diver to the eyes
Of his pale wife, who waits and weeps on shore,
By sands of Bahrein on the Persian Gulf
Plunging all day in the blue waves, at night
Having made up his tale of precious pearls
Rejoins her in their hut upon the shore.
Two other pearling areas had
close Persian Gulf connections: the Red Sea, between Arabia and Africa, and the
Gulf of Mannar, between
Historical records on the pearl fisheries of
the Red Sea, around the Dahlak and
The other great pearling area of ancient times lay in Southeast Asia, the Mergui Archipelago of Burma-Myanmar, the Leizhou Peninsula of southern China, and the Sulu Islands of the southern Philippines. With long histories of reasonably continuous use, these supplied pearls to markets that lay outside the sphere of the Bombay-centered commercial system that controlled the bulk of the world's pearl trade.
Mergui and Sulu, as well as occasionally exploited pearl beds in eastern Indonesia, produced a different kind of pearls, golden ones from the very large pearl oyster species Pinctada maxima. The pearls were much larger than those from Sri Lanka and the Persian Gulf, and are exceptionally beautiful in modern eyes: even now, insiders claim that the finest cultured pearls in the world come from Mergui. Early pearl buyers may not have agreed, however. Southeast Asian pearls were not a major factor in the world's jewelry trade. The Chinese knew about them but obviously preferred pearls from places further west, and the Indians and Persians may not even have known that Southeast Asian pearls existed.
China itself had a moderately active marine pearl fishery, off the Leizhou Peninsula and northern Hainan Island just east of Vietnam. The Leizhou pearl fishery remained active from at least the 1st century BC down through the 17th century AD, during which time it sporadically produced large quantities of medium-quality pearls. As in the case of the Sri Lankan fisheries, those of Leizhou were boom-and-bust affairs, with a few years of feverish activity followed by several decades of quiescence while the stocks of Pinctadas rebuilt themselves. A poem by Yuan Zhen describes both the suffering of the divers and the temporary extinction of the pearl oysters in the eighth century. In Edward Schafer's translation:
Sea waves -- no bottom -- and the pearls sunk in the sea;
And men who gather pearls -- doomed to death by gathering.
Of a myriad men doomed to death -- one finds a pearl;
A bushel measure will buy a slave girl -- but where is the man?
Year after year they gather pearls, but the pearls have fled from men;
This year the gathering of pearls is left to the god of the sea.
The sea god gathered pearls until every pearl is dead;
Dead and gone the shining pearls, empty the waters of the sea.
Pearls are creatures of the sea, and the sea is subject to the god;
The god now freely gathers them -- but how many more men!
The Leizhou pearls came from smaller oysters, like those of the Persian Gulf and Sri Lanka, and were of a similarly white color. However, they were judged to be less brilliant than Western pearls. During the Qing or Manchu dynasty, even the freshwater pearls of Manchuria were valued more highly than the marine pearls of Leizhou.
Interestingly, while pearl divers in the western Indian Ocean area tended to be free individuals who were kept in debt to pearl merchants, those in Southeast Asia were members of outcast groups who were effectively unfree. They belonged to the Sea Gypsies or Mawken in Myanmar, the Bajau in Sulu and the Danjia or Tanka in southern China. They were often, and perhaps always, forced laborers, compelled by local leaders to dive for pearls. As Yuan Zhen's poem suggests, the divers' lot was not a happy one.
Other Pearl Beds and Fisheries
The rest of the world did not see much marine pearl production before the European expansion of the 16th century. Contrary to what gem writers often claim, pearls have not always been prized by everyone. Some peoples, like the Caribbean Indians of Pre-Columbian times or the Japanese before the 18th century, seem to have liked pearls well enough but not to have been so fond of them as to rank them above many other kinds of valuables. Others, like the early Polynesians and Australian Aborigines, were not interested at all, in spite of their easy access to large quantities of pearl-bearing molluscs.
One is especially surprised to find that Japan, now at the center of the international pearl trade, was only a very minor pearl producer for most of its history. Although the Japanese had long used mother-of-pearl from the local Akoya oyster, Pinctada fucata, they did not become interested in actual pearls until quite recently. As late as the 1680s, for instance, the well-traveled French gem trader Tavernier could write "There are, moreover, on the coast of Japan pearls of very beautiful water and good size, but they are very imperfect; nevertheless they are not fished for, because, as I have said, the Japanese do not esteem pearls". Even in 1900, when Mikimoto had already begun his experiments with pearl farming, Japan was still of only modest importance in the world of pearls. Well-informed contemporaries could still say "While the pearl fisheries of Japan are not of great importance in any single locality, the distribution of the [pearl] reefs is so extensive that the aggregate yield is considerable".
Two parts of the Americas too had pre-European marine pearl fisheries: the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and the Pacific coast from Panama through Mexico. Before the arrival of the Spanish in the late 15th century, despite the richness of the pearl beds, production was casual and on a small scale. Indians in several areas liked pearls and wore them, but did not attach excessive value to them. In the eyes of almost any early inhabitant of the tropical Americas, the most important deep-water shellfish were Spondylus species, whose brilliant orange shells are found at most large archaeological sites in Mexico, Central America and northern South America. The development of deep diving techniques was focused on these animals as well as the conches which formed a staple food in the Bahamas and Antilles. Pearl shell too was popular in some areas, notably in Mexico. But everywhere, pearls themselves seem to have been a secondary interest.
The Spanish had quite a different opinion. Columbus himself was as interested in pearls as gold, and his successors, including his villainous son Diego, exploited the Caribbean beds and natives with ruthless efficiency. Particularly harsh was the way the Lucayans, the natives of the Bahamas, were treated. They were experienced divers due to their diet of conches, and so fetched high prices as slaves. Within a few decades of Columbus' first visit to the Bahamas, the islands were depopulated and all Lucayans were dead. The pearl oysters themselves lasted less than a century longer. The sources of the New World pearls began to dry up in the 1580s and 1590s. By 1650, the pearl-bearing Pinctadas of the southern Caribbean and Panama were virtually extinct, and the number of pearls carried back to Europe in Spanish treasure ships had dwindled to a trickle.
Other places too had pearls in the days before European contact but did not dive for or use them in meaningful quantities. Polynesia is one such place. Colorful, romanticized and famed for the diving skills of their men and women, the Society and Tuamotu Islands of eastern Polynesia are for many Westerners the very heartland of pearls and pearl diving. And yet the early Polynesians seem not to have been particularly interested in the subject. When the Frenchman Mörenhout first tried to establish a pearl fishing operation in Tahiti in 1827, he gave up in despair, finding that Queen Pomaré, who was said to possess pearls the size of billiard balls, was not willing to do business. However, pearl-seeking outsiders kept on coming, lured by the prospect of buying "superb pearls for a few gallons of rum or a few pieces of cheap calico", and Polynesians began diving for pearls intensively. The local pearl oyster, the large Pinctada margaritifera, produced large pearls that ranged in color from light bronze to gray-black; these became so fashionable among late Victorians and Edwardians that the oysters in many localities were in danger of being wiped out. The gathering of wild Pinctadas came to an end in the 1950s. Twenty years later, pearl farms began to spread through the lagoons of Polynesia, and cultured pearls have now become a major factor in local economic life.
In Australia too pearls were not appreciated and pearling not done until the advent of European traders and colonists. The pearl beds along the northern and northwest coasts of the continent were rich, however, supporting quantities of the very large golden-lipped pearl shell, Pinctada maxima. After a brutal initial period when breath-holding diving was done by forcibly recruited Aborigines and not much better treated Indonesians and Filipinos, in the 1890s pearl oyster gathering fell into the hands of divers in helmets and rubber suits. Most such divers were from Japan or the Philippines. They continued gathering wild Pinctadas until the 1930s. Nowadays in Australia, as in Polynesia, pearl farming is done in the same places that formerly were rich in natural pearls.
A last chapter in the history of human involvement with wild pearls will be touched on only lightly here: the gathering of freshwater pearls.
Pearls and pearl shell from rivers and lakes in the temperate parts of North America and Eurasia have played a surprisingly important part in pearl history. Julius Caesar is said to have invaded Britain in order to gain control of its pearl-producing rivers. Mary Queen of Scots removed a necklace made of pearls from Scottish rivers before kneeling to meet the headsman's axe. The Manchu rulers of China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) were inordinately fond of freshwater pearls of their native Manchuria. In the early 1900s, the rivers of the Mississippi drainage ranked among the world's leading producers of both pearls and mother-of pearl.
Belonging to a number of genera, pearl-producing mussels occur or formerly occurred in most of the larger streams in temperate parts of the Eurasian landmass. The pearls involved were not generally valued as highly as marine pearls from warmer regions, but fine examples of freshwater pearls exist, presumably including those of Mary Stuart. But the high point of freshwater pearl and mother-of-pearl production occurred not in ancient times in Eurasia but in the Eastern United States less than a hundred years ago.
The key to the presence of pearls along the East Coast and in the Mississippi Basin is the existence of many kinds of large, thick-shelled mussels in local rivers -- many more species than in Europe, Asia and Africa. The significance of this in terms of pearls was not appreciated until the mid-19th century. The initial discovery is supposed to have been a 400-grain pearl that was found in 1850s by David Howell of Patterson, New Jersey. According to one story, he was making mussel stew for himself. According to another, he was cooking a mussel swill for his pigs. Both stories agree that the enormous pearl turned out to be valueless, having been ruined by the heat. But then, a few months later a neighbor, Jacob Quackenbush, found a smaller but perfect pink pearl which he sold to Charles L. Tiffany for $1500, who in turn sold it to a Paris dealer for 12,500 francs, whence it "passed into the possession of the young and beautiful Empress Eugénie." In the early 1900s, Kunz estimated that the Eugénie pearl had a current market value of at least $10,000.
This made the reputation of American pearls. The ensuing pearl rush on the Atlantic seaboard quickly petered out, but soon afterward much larger resources of pearl mussels were discovered further west, in the many rivers of the Mississippi drainage. Large-scale harvesting of first pearls and then of pearl shells too was well under way in the 1900s, and shortly after that the mussel beds of the Midwest had become the world's largest producer of mother-of-pearl buttons cut from local mussel shells. The capital of the button industry was Muscatine, Iowa, and large fortunes were made by the people who set up the first factories -- notably, an ingenious German named Boeppl -- and began to buy shells from the local rivermen. A few of those rivermen, who called themselves "clammers", made a tidy fortune from pearls found in the shells. Most, however, were as impoverished and downtrodden as any pearl diver in the Gulf.
The invention of plastic buttons rather than the extinction of the mussels killed off the Midwestern pearl button industry. At present, pearl mussels are still exploited intensively, especially along the tributaries of the Tennessee. But now, except for two small producers near Nashville, the mussels serve not for pearls or mother-of-pearl but for making shell nuclei, the round white shell balls that are inserted into saltwater pearl oysters to be covered with nacre and become cultured pearls. All of the world's marine pearl farmers currently use nuclei formed from American mussel shells. However, the mussels, all of them wild rather than farmed, are becoming scarce. Within another decade or so, the world's pearl farmers will have to turn to other materials for their nuclei -- perhaps a ceramic of some kind, perhaps farmed Chinese mussel shells or perhaps even small freshwater Chinese pearls.
Interest in inducing oysters to produce pearls goes back to Classical times and was pursued vigorously in the Enlightenment, when no less a figure than Linneaus himself became interested enough in the subject to take out a patent. In China, blister pearls -- half pearls that form attached to the shell -- were being produced artificially in freshwater mussels as much as a thousand years ago.
The modern era of pearl culturing began in the 1890s with experiments by several Japanese with connections in the wild pearl business. By the early 1920s, one of these experimenters, Kokichi Mikimoto, was producing moderate quantities of fully round pearls using the technique of inserting shell nuclei into the flesh of the Akoya pearl oyster. By the 1930s, the flood of high-quality Japanese cultured pearls, sold for a fraction of the cost of natural pearls, had transformed the market. Although the pearling industry of the Gulf was still competitive, the other natural pearl-producing areas were in desperate straits. By the early 1950s, even Gulf pearls had ceased to be commercially viable. A tiny number of natural pearls are still caught, especially in the Gulf where they command astronomical prices, but virtually all the pearls on the market nowadays are cultured.
The main pearl farming areas are not all the same as those that once yielded natural pearls. The Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Mannar, the Red Sea and the Caribbean produce no cultured pearls at all, while formerly minor producers like Japan and eastern Indonesia have become major ones since the development of culturing techniques. In other places, culturing has followed directly from natural pearl collecting. Experimenters in western Mexico and northern Vietnam have begun culturing pearls in former pearling areas. Places like the Tuamotus, Northwest Australia, Sulu, Mergui, and Leizhou produce more pearls now than they did in the past and play a significant role in world markets.
All are endangered, however, by a new development: the rise of Chinese freshwater pearls. Thirty years ago, everyone laughed at the strings of tiny, poorly formed, brightly colored pearls coming from the eastern provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Now the pearls are larger, rounder, and still brightly colored, and no one is laughing. The problem for other producers is that Chinese pearls are very cheap, quite good, and very abundant. A string of moderate quality sells for less than a similar string of artificial pearls. The best, although not as large as South Seas pearls and not as lustrous as Japanese pearls, are beautifully colored in a range that includes white, pink, orange, copper, bluish, green-gray, and black. What is more, like natural pearls and unlike other cultured pearls, they lack identifiable nuclei, seeming to be made of nacre all the way through. And there are a lot of them. This year, about ninety-five percent of the world's pearls will come from Chinese freshwater ponds. In another decade, it may be ninety-eight percent.
Value and Meaning
There is no question that pearls have often been precious, in some cultures at certain times. In other cultures, as noted earlier, they were ignored. Eastern Asia and the Pacific were lukewarm on pearls, as was Africa and most of the Americas. The one exception in the New World was the Hopewell culture of Ohio, where in the early first millennium chiefs were buried with enormous quantities of freshwater pearls. China, however, is not an exception. The gem literature is full of stories that Chinese emperors amassed vast quantities of pearls and other gems. But I think those stories are not true. The emperors of the Manchu period were indeed interested in pearls, but only moderately so. Pictures rarely show pearl accessories on emperors or empresses, or pearl decorations in palaces, and museum collections include few Chinese objects ornamented with pearls that are either large or numerous.
The real pearl fanciers were in Europe, the Middle East and India. The Romans were mad about them. Cleopatra, in winning her famous bet with Mark Anthony about expensive meals, dissolved an enormous pearl, presumably powdered, in a glass of wine. Pliny says that Lollia Paulina, who married Caligula in 38 AD, wore so many pearls "disposed in rowes, rankes, and courses one by another, round about the attire of her head, her cawle, her borders, her perruke of hair, her bongrace and chaplet; at her ears pendant, about her neck in a carcanet, upon her wrist in bracelets, and on her fingers in rings; that she glittered and shone againe like the sun as she went. The value of these ornaments she esteemed and rated at 400 hundred thousand sestertij [about 6,400,000 pounds sterling as of 1900]; and offered openly to prove it out of hand by her books of accounts and reckonings." Pliny says that the poorest women wore a pearl or two. Richer ones even had shoes with pearl-covered soles "For it will not suffice nor serve their turne to carie Pearles about with them, but they must tread upon Pearles, goe among Pearles, and walke, as it were, on a pavement of Pearles."
Europeans during the Renaissance were equally extravagant. Elizabeth I, as everybody knows, often wore large quantities of pearls, many of Venezuelan origin. She is reputed to have had 3,000 pearl-decorated gowns and 80 pearled wigs. Sir Thomas Gresham pledged her health in a cup of wine in which a pearl worth 15,000 pounds had been dissolved. Thomas Heywood considered this "an exceedingly foolish imitation of Cleopatra" and wrote these lines:
Here fifteen thousand pounds at one clap goes
Instead of sugar; Gresham drinks the pearl
Unto his queen and mistress. Pledge it, lords.
Such vainglory seems to have clung to the reputation of the English. A few decades later, the Duke of Buckingham (of Three Musketeers fame) is said to have offered an especially ingenious insult to the nobility of France. Invited to a royal ball in Paris by King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, he showed up in a costume of unparalleled splendor, covered completely with large pearls worth the ransom of a king's brother, which he was. The Duke danced with the ladies, including the Queen (who Alexandre Dumas says was his lover), exchanged appropriately witty remarks with acquaintances, and then, just as the Grand Promenade was being announced, pulled a thread in his pocket so that all the pearls fell off and rolled across the floor. Courteously, the assembled nobility of France knelt down to pick them up. The Duke pretended not to notice and refused with contempt the handfuls of pearls that were offered to him. The King and Cardinal, in no doubt about the real meaning of the Duke's actions, promptly declared war.
In the late 19th century, just before cultured pearls destroyed the market for the natural variety, Europeans and Americans were again paying extraordinary prices for pearls. Horace Dodge bought Catherine the Great's pearl necklace from Cartier's for a million dollars while complaining "Never heard of her". Another pearl necklace was exchanged by Cartier as the full price for the palazzo of Morton F. Plant on Fifth Avenue in New York. The value of the necklace was to fall sharply soon afterward but the value of the palazzo, which became Cartier's American headquarters and still exists, continued to appreciate.
Westerners were not the most serious pearl lovers, however. As Tavernier noted in the 17th century:
Many are astonished to learn that pearls are taken from Europe to the East, from whence they come in abundance, but it should be remarked that . . . the kings and great nobles of Asia pay much better than do people in Europe, not only for pearls but for all kinds of jewels.
The same has been true for most of recorded history. Southern and western Asia have prized pearls more highly than other areas and have paid the highest prices for them. As a result, the finest of the world's pearls have traditionally been in the hands of Indian rajahs, Arab sheikhs and Persian khans. The biggest and best were worn not by wives and concubines but by the rulers themselves. There are many existing photographs and miniature paintings showing maharajahs wearing dozens of strands of 14-15 centimeter pearls. A single cultured pearl of that size now sells for a very high price. An equivalent natural pearl, assuming one has the right certificates, sells for much more. What all the pearls those maharajahs were wearing would be worth at the present day, even though prices are much lower than a hundred years ago, is beyond calculation.
There is clearly a link between market value and metaphorical value. Nowadays we rarely use the idea of pearls more imaginatively than to incorporate them into the epithets of place names: "Pearl of the Antilles", "Pearl of the Delta" and "Pearl of the Housatonic". But the days when pearls were truly valuable and popular produced less hackneyed imagery.
Pearls can stand for faith, as in a poem by St. Ephraim of Syria called "The Pearl":
In the pearl of time
Let us behold that of eternity;
The pearl itself is full,
for its light is full ;
Neither is there any cunning worker who can steal from it;
For its wall is its own beauty,
Yea, its guard also!
It lacks not,
since it is entirely perfect.
They can stand for love and a loved one, as in the anonymous Middle English poem that is also called "The Pearl".
Pearl, pleasant for prince's joy,
Cleanly closed in gold so clear,
Out of orient, I am bold to say
Never have proved her precious peer
So round, so radiant in every way
So slim, so smooth her sides were,
Wheresoever I judged fair gems
I placed her singly in a class apart.
Alas, I lost her in a garden,
Through grass to ground it from me went.
I pine away, stricken by grieving love
For that secret, spotless pearl."
And pearls can provide many openings for ironic and admiring epigrams. A number of those epigrams are based on a false fact, that pearls form around grains of sand that get into the oyster and irritate it until they are covered with nacre. In reality, no pearl has ever had a sand grain as a nucleus. On the other hand some do form around parasites, a fact which can also generate epigrams. In the words of Raphael Dubois,
The most beautiful pearl is nothing more, in fact, than the brilliant sarcophagus of a worm.
The great pearl expert G. F. Kunz emphasized another aspect of pearl formation:
It is an interesting fact that the humble mollusks, like the five wise virgins with prepared lamps, keep their gems perfect in beauty and luster at all times. It matters not whether the pearl be removed when it is only the size of a pin-head or not until it reaches that of a marble, it is at all times complete, a ripe, a perfect pearl, and the largest surpasses the smallest only in the characteristics and properties which are incidental to size. Imparting perfection and completion every day, every moment, the mollusk utilizes the added time simply in enlarging its beautiful work.
And lastly, in the words of an anonymous writer quoted by Kunz,
Forasmuch as the pearl is a product of life, which from an inward trouble and from a fault produces purity and perfection, it is preferred; for in nothing does God so much delight as in tenderness and lustre born of trouble and repentance.
Sources on Pearls
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