Pearls have been used in jewelry and to decorate important ornaments and objects for centuries. They have also been used to adorn clothing—typically of royalty or the very wealthy. Pearls are hard minerals that are produced in the soft tissue of shelled mollusks. They occur in the wild, but are mainly cultured in pearl oysters today. Pearls occur in mollusks of the sea as well as freshwater mollusks. The finest natural pearls are given gemstone status; throughout history such pearls have been used to create some of the finest jewels in the world.
Natural pearls are composed of calcium carbonate and conchiolin. According to scientists, a pearl begins as tiny parasite that enters the mollusk. In order to neutralize the invading irritant, the mollusk secretes tissue in the form of a pearl sac around the offending particle. This is repeated over time until a pearl is formed. Pearls may be white, cream, golden, pink, silver, and even black. It is rare to find perfectly formed pearls in the wild; this is one reason extremely fine pearls are sought after. Salt-water pearls are more spherical in shape than fresh-water pearls. Fresh-water pearls are often pear-shaped; historically these pear-shaped pearls are referred to as Baroque pearls.
As rare gemstones, pearls make the most precious jewels. The value of a specific pearl is generally determined by its weight, size, color, luster, and shape. The presence of surface flaws may also impact the pearl’s value. Large, perfectly rounded pearls are usually the most valuable. Cultured pearls are not as valuable as wild pearls. White pearls continue to be the most popular color choice when it comes to pearl jewelry.
Pearls have been used to create many of the world’s most famous jewels. One of the most famous pearl necklaces was the one worn by Anne Boleyn that features a strand of pearls attached to a golden letter B. The famed Pearl of Asia was a jewel given by Shah Jahan to his wife; he also had the Taj Mahal built for her. The Emperor Justinian is known to have worn a cap completely studded with pearls and other gems. Royalty has been known to wear pearl jewels in every conceivable way since the seventeenth century. Pearls are worn as chokers, graduated necklaces, bracelets, and earrings; they invariably decorate the royal crowns of many nations.
Pearls are among the earliest gems ever worn. Some of the earliest pearl jewelry is from China, Japan, India, and Greece. Interestingly, pearls are, perhaps, the most famous gems ever painted. They appear in some of the world’s most illustrious paintings such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665) and Clouet’s portrait of Mary Queen of Scots (c.1559), which depicts her famous strand of black pearls. Pearls were also sewn into the garments of royals for centuries and used to adorn treasured objects such as royal goblets and scepters.