The pearl is the oldest known gem, and for centuries it was considered the most valuable. A fragment of the oldest known pearl jewelry, found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC, is displayed in the Louvre in Paris. To the ancients, pearls were a symbol of the moon and had magical powers. In classical Rome, only persons above a certain rank were allowed to wear pearl jewelry. Pearls have been considered ideal wedding gifts because they symbolize purity and innocence.
Pearls are amongst the oldest and most universal of all gems. They are the oldest jewels known to man, and the only gem made by a living animal. The oldest surviving pearl necklace is nearly 2000 years old and was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian Princess. In many countries pearls were worn as a declaration of wealth and power, and also used as a talisman to bring good fortune, to ward off evil spirits and to cure illnesses. Pearls were symbolic of purity, chastity and feminine charm.
In ancient Rome, pearls were a highly prized accessory, and worn as a symbol of wealth and prestige. They were such a status symbol, that an effort was actually made to prohibit the wearing of pearls by those not deserving of them. Perhaps the most celebrated incident in Roman history involving pearls has to do with a banquet given by Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen, for the Roman leader Marc Antony. 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 Antony 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), Antony 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 wager.
The effect on the pearl industry of the discovery of pearl culturing, combined with Mikimoto's marketing enthusiasm, cannot be understated. During a span of less than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of years of pearl history were rewritten. Pearl Jewellery -- 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.