History of the Discovery and Appreciation of
Pearls - the Organic Gem Perfected by Nature - Page 1
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Organic Gemstones Perfected by Nature and Possessing Unique Optical Properties
that Cannot be Replicated by Human Intervention
Pearls are organic gems produced by
Mollusks such as bivalves (oysters, mussels, clams, scallops etc.) and
gastropods (sea snails like melo melo sea snail, queen conch, horse conch,
abalone sea snail etc), considered as gifts of nature, that come ready-made,
already perfected by nature, not requiring human intervention such as cutting
and polishing, and possessing a luster and brilliance as in nacreous pearls,
that sometimes exceeds such properties, created by man in inorganic gemstones
using modern technical skills and innovations; and possessing unique optical
properties such as orient and overtones, caused by the refraction of light as it
passes through successive layers of nacre, giving rise to unique color
combinations, that is not found in any inorganic gemstone including diamonds,
and that cannot be replicated by human intervention.
Perhaps the First Gemstones Discovered and Appreciated by Pre-historic Man
Being ready-made gems that come perfect
from the hands of nature, pearls were perhaps the first gemstones discovered by
ancient and pre-historic man, during his perennial quest for food, one of
early man's pre-occupations as a food gatherer. Having made the discovery that
freshwater mussels and saltwater oysters were ideal sources of food, ancient man
collected them by the thousands from the rivers and the sea. In the
process of shucking these mussels and oysters ancient man would have stumbled
upon the first pearls, with their beautiful luster and brilliance, which he came
to like and appreciate for their beauty. Had the pearls been rough, and dull in
appearance they would not have captured his attention, and like other inorganic
gemstones such as diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, etc. pearls would have
waited for several millennia more until man's cultural evolution would have
progressed to that extent, enabling cutting and polishing to reveal their
Further, by experience pre-historic man would also have learnt that
pearls were not found in all oysters and were elusive and extremely rare, found
just in a few oysters out of thousands of oysters shucked. Such extreme rarity
would have naturally instilled in ancient man an admiration and awe for these
elusive creations of nature, to which he ascribed a spiritual provenance,
fit only to be adorned by members of the royalty and nobility, who were
considered as agents of the creator on earth. Pearls and the more easily
obtainable mother-of-pearl shells were among the first materials of adornment
incorporated into items of jewelry by ancient man. However, the use of pearls in
adornments evolved simultaneously with ancient man's ability to drill various
materials, both of organic and inorganic origin and convert them into beads.
in the world were the first pearls discovered and came to be appreciated?
any doubt were first discovered and appreciated in the East or the Orient, where
they came to be associated with the monarchies and culture and religion of the
It is not known exactly where the first pearl was discovered
and came to be appreciated. But, we know for certain that it was in the East or
the Orient, where the pearl first became associated with different aspects of
their culture and religion, and adorned not only their deities and monarchs, but
also the temples and palaces in which they resided. Pearls adorned the
paraphernalia associated with the monarchy, such as thrones, crowns, tiaras,
aigrettes, and carpets apart from jewelry items worn by them such as multistrand-necklaces,
bracelets, rings, earrings etc. Pearls became symbols of purity, sanctity,
and perfection and came to represent higher human values such as virtue and
love, wisdom and justice, and spirituality and righteousness.
Ancient historical records make no
mention of pearls having been obtained elsewhere than in the Orient, up to the
time of Julius Caesar when Roman armies invaded Britain, to take control
of the freshwater pearl resources of the country, particularly in Scotland where
they were available in abundance. It is said that pearls together with gold
underpinned the Roman currency at that time, apart from the demand from the
members of the aristocracy who incorporated them in their ornaments. The ancient use of pearls in the Orient
combined with the fact that the most ancient source of pearls in the world, the
Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar, were all situated in the
Orient, confirms that the Orient was the region where the first pearls were
discovered and appreciated.
evidence that prove the Orient was the region where pearls were first discovered
and came to be appreciated
Thus, evidence that proves that pearls were first
discovered and came to be appreciated in the Orient can be summarized as
1) Historical and archaeological
evidence of the ancient use of pearls in the Orient, that came to be associated
with their culture and religion.
2) The fact that only the Orient is
mentioned as the source of pearls by ancient historians.
3) The fact that the most ancient
sources of pearls in the world was the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of
Mannar, all situated in the Orient.
4) The fact that these were the same
regions where some of the earliest human civilizations began, such as
Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilization and the ancient Egyptian
5) Some of the earliest archaeological
evidences of the use of pearls originate in this region, such as the evidence of
burying people with a pierced pearl in their right hand unearthed from the
Persian Gulf region, believed to be more than 6,000 years old (4,000 B.C.).
6) The most ancient reference to pearls
comes from China, also in the Orient, in one of the oldest books originating
associated with all great religions that originated in the East and were
mentioned in their scriptures
Having originated in the Orient, pearls
naturally became associated with all the great religions that originated in the
East, such as ancient Chinese religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism,
Christianity and Islam, and came to be mentioned in the scriptures of these
pearls in the ancient sacred Hindu texts and literature dating from 1,700 B.C.
(3,700 B.P.) to 400-500 A.D. (1,600-1,500 B.P)
The oldest sacred books of the Hindus
known as the "Vedas," written in Sanskrit, contain many references to pearls.
The "Rigveda" the oldest of the "Vedas" originating in northwestern India
1,700-1,100 B.C. (3,700-3,300 B.P.) uses the word "krisana" in many verses,
which is generally translated as signifying pearls. The "Atharvaveda" written
around 1200-1,000 B.C. (3,200-3,000 B.P.) refers to an amulet made of pearls,
and used as a talisman. References to pearls are also found in the two great
epics of ancient India, the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic ascribed to the
Hindu sage Valmiki, probably originating in the 5th-century B.C (2,500 B.P.);
and the Mahabaratha, the Sanskrit philosophical/historic epic of the 4th-century
B.C. (2,400 B.P.) attributed to Vyasa. Hindu Literature associates the pearl
with Krishna, the 8th-incarnation of Vishnu, the most popular God of Hindu
worship, who is believed to have retrieved pearls from the depths of the sea to
adorn his daughter on the day of her wedding. The renowned classical Sanskrit
writer, of the 4th or 5th century A.D. widely regarded as the greatest poet and
dramatist in the Sanskrit Language, commonly known as the Hindu Shakespeare but
preceded William Shakespeare by 12 centuries, makes frequent reference to pearls
in his works, which he called "muktha" meaning "pure."
reference to pearls (freshwater pearls) comes from ancient China 2,350 B.C.
The most ancient reference to pearls
comes from ancient China. In one of the oldest of books published in China,
known as Sho King (Chuang Tzu) dating from 2,350 B.C. (4,350 B.P.) mention is
made of a pearl from the River Huai, the natural boundary between north China
and south China, being given as a tribute to Emperor Yu in 2206 B.C. (4,206 B.P.),
and a string of near-spherical pearls from the province of King Kau also given
as tribute. The book also mentions of pearls in tax records and of pearl rewards
after death. An interesting Confucian ode, "If in life you gave no alms, In
death how do you deserve a pearl?" is mentioned in this book. The ode
is an exhortation to give charity to the poor, so that you can be rewarded in
life after death. The ancient Chinese dictionary, the Nh'ya, published in 1,000
B.C. (3,000 B.P.) refer to pearls as precious jewels found in the province of
Shen-Si on the western frontier. China also gets the credit for the production
of the first cultured pearls around the year 1,000 A.D. by inserting tiny lead
Buddhas into freshwater mollusks which was coated with mother-of-pearl,
producing pearl Buddhas in a period of 1-2 years. Such pearl-coated Buddhas had
special spiritual significance for the Chinese Buddhists.
pearls in the Talmud, the Jewish sacred text, Hebrew Literature and traditions
to pearls in Rabbinical Literature
The Talmud, the sacred text of
mainstream Judaism, make frequent references to pearls, as signifying something
extraordinarily beautiful and very costly. Some examples of these references are
:- "The coats which God had made for Adam and Eve were as beautiful as
pearls"(Gen R xx 12); "The manna was as white as a pearl" (Yoma 75a); "A pearl
that is worth thousands of zuzim" (Bava Batra 146a); "A pearl that has no price"
(Yerushalami ix 12d); "The pearl is one of the things the purchase of which is
not subject to the laws of Ona'ah, for the reason that the value of two matched
pearls greatly exceeded the value of each one separately, (Bava Metzia iv 8, ib
One of the references, however,
considers pearls to be inferior to precious stones (Ab. Zarah 8b). Pearls are
compared to drops in one reference. "Oil remained on Aaron's beard like two
pearl-drops" (Hor 12a). This is an obvious reference to drop-shaped pearls
like the ones
used in pendant earrings. The term "pearl" is used metaphorically to denote any
valuable thing, eg. a good slave (Kid. 18a), or a halakah, or any reasonable
interpretation, (Hag. 3a and elsewhere). Sometimes it designates a prayer. eg.
"Rab and Samuel instituted a pearl in Babylon" (Ber. 32b), referring to the
prayer beginning "Wa-todi'enu." The word "margalit" used in several passages
(Yer.Kil.ix.32c, Yer.Ab,Zarah ii.41a), which word may denote "pearl" as well as
As a betrothal ring
should be devoid of gems, there is a discussion concerning one containing a
pearl, the opinion of most of the rabbis being that the betrothal in the case of
which such a ring is used is binding (see Shulhan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 31, 2).
A Rabbinical story involving
Patriarch Abraham that highlights the value placed on pearls by ancient Hebrews
A Rabbinical story in
which Patriarch Abraham attempts to hide Sarah in a chest, so that foreign eyes
might not behold her beauty, at the time they
entered Egypt, serves to highlight the value placed on pearls by ancient Hebrews
at that time. When they reached the point at which they were to pay custom dues,
the officers requested Abraham to pay the dues on the goods carried by him,
without caring to open the chest. When told that he was surely carrying clothes
with him, Abraham acknowledged and said that he would pay the dues on them. When
the officers questioned Abraham whether he carried gold, fine silk and pearls
with him he acknowledged every one of them and agreed to pay tax on them. This
aroused the suspicion of the custom officers, who ordered Abraham to open the
chest, and as the story goes the chest was opened, and the land was illumined by
the luster of Sarah's beauty.
In the story above,
the items about which the custom officers questioned Abraham, clothes, gold,
fine silk and pearls, showed an increasing gradation in value, according to
market values obtaining at that time. Pearls were the most valued of all items
at that time, and was the last question posed to Abraham. The stunned custom
officers were actually keen in finding out what Abraham carried inside the chest
that was more valuable than pearls !
The use of the word "pearl" in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh)
known as the Old testament by the Christians is contentious
The Israelites were probably acquainted
with pearls, but it is contentious whether the word pearl is mentioned in the
Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), referred to as the Old Testament by Christians. Some of
the words mentioned in the Tanakh, that are argued by some to mean pearls are "peninim,"
"ra'mot," "netofot," "shoham" and "gabish."
"Peninim" and "ramot" are objects of
great costliness, taken to mean pearls. "Peninim" as appearing in Lam.iv.7 is
taken by some authorities to indicate objects whose color is red, probably red
pearls. However, others consider the two words actually refer to red corals or
red rubies. The word "Netifot" mentioned in Judges.viii.26 and Isa.iii.19 may
not mean pearls, but is still used in Esth.i.6, where it is some versions are
translated as pearls, because the corresponding Arabic word denotes pearls. In
Job.xxviii.18 the value of wisdom is compared with the value of "gabish." Some
authorities believe the word "gabish" refers to pearls, while others think it
refers to rock crystal. The word "shoham" stones in Gen.ii.12 is also believed
to indicate pearls.
pearls in the Christian Bible (The New Testament)
Unlike in the Old Testament, in the New
Testament there are many clear references to pearls, that showed the great
estimation in which they were held. There are eight references to pearls in the
New Testament of the Bible :- Matthew - 2 references, Revelation - 4 references,
1 Timothy - 1 reference and Job - 1 reference.
1) Matthew 7:6 (King James Version)
not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before
swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.
Matthew 13:45-46 (King James
the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had,
and bought it.
3) Revelation 17:4 (King James Version)
woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious
stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and
the filthiness of her fornication
4) Revelation 18:12
(King James Version)
merchandise of gold
and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and
scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every
kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble.
18:16 (King James Version)
Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple,
and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls!
6) Revelation 21:21
(King James Version)
the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and
the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.
7) 1 Timothy 2:9 (King James Version)
in like manner also, that
the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation,
not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.
Job 28:18 (King James Version)
mention shall be made of coral,
or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.
pearls in the Qur'an, the sacred text of the followers of Islam
There are six references to pearls in
the Qur'an, the sacred text of Muslims all over the world, which they believe
was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by God almighty himself through the medium
of archangel Jibreel (Gabriel).
Surah 22 - Al Hajj, The Pilgrimage. Verse : 23
Allah will admit those who believe and work righteous deeds, to gardens beneath
they shall be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their
garments there will be of silk.
Surah 35 - Fatir, The Angels. Verse : 33
Gardens of eternity will they enter: therein will they be adorned with bracelets
of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk.
Surah 52 - At Tur, The Mount. Verses : 17- 24
 As to the righteous, they will be in gardens, and in happiness,-
 Enjoying the (bliss) which their lord hath bestowed on them, and their lord
shall deliver them from the penalty of the fire.
 (To them will be said :) "Eat and drink ye, with profit and health, because
of your (good) deeds."
 They will recline (with ease) on thrones (of dignity) arranged in ranks;
and we shall join them to companions, with beautiful big and lustrous eyes.
 And those who believe and whose families follow them in faith,- to them
shall we join their families: nor shall we deprive them (of the fruit) of aught
of their works: (yet) is each individual in pledge for his deeds.
 And we shall bestow on them, of fruit and meat, anything they shall desire.
 They shall there exchange, one with another, a (loving) cup free of
frivolity, free of all taint of ill.
Round about them will serve, (devoted) to them, young male servants (handsome)
as pearls well-guarded.
Surah 55 - Ar Rahman, The Beneficent The Merciful. Verse : 19- 22
 He has let free the two bodies of flowing water (salt and fresh), meeting
 Between them is a barrier which they do not transgress:
 Then which of the favors of your lord will ye deny?
 Out of them come pearls and coral:
Surah 56 - Al Waqi'ah, The Inevitable Event. Verse : 11-24
 Those will be those nearest to Allah:
 In gardens of bliss (delight):
 A number of people from those of old,
 And a few from those of later times.
 (They will be) on thrones encrusted (with gold and precious stones),
 Reclining on them, facing each other.
 Round about them will (serve) youths of perpetual (freshness),
 With goblets, (shining) beakers, and cups (filled) out of clear-flowing
 No after-ache will they receive therefrom, nor will they suffer
 And with fruits, any that they may select:
 and the flesh of fowls, any that they may desire.
 And (there will be) companions with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes,
 Like unto pearls well-guarded.
 a reward for the deeds of their past (life).
Surah 76 - Al Insan, Man. Verse : 10-22
 "We only fear a day of distressful wrath from the side of our lord."
 But Allah will deliver them from the evil of that day, and will shed over
them a light of beauty and (blissful) joy.
 And because they were patient and constant, he will reward them with a
garden and (garments of) silk.
 Reclining in the (garden) on raised thrones, they will see there neither
the sun's (excessive heat) nor (the moon's) excessive cold.
 And the shades of the (garden) will come low over them, and the bunches (of
fruit), there, will hang low in humility.
 And amongst them will be passed round vessels of silver and goblets of
 Crystal-clear, made of silver: they will determine the measure thereof
(according to their wishes).
 And they will be given to drink there of a cup (of wine) mixed with
 A fountain there, called salsabil.
 And round about them will (serve) youths of perpetual (freshness): if thou
seest them, thou wouldst think them scattered pearls.
 And when thou lookest, it is there thou wilt see a bliss and a realm
 Upon them will be green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade, and they
will be adorned with bracelets of silver; and their lord will give to them to
drink of a wine pure and holy.
 "Verily this is a reward for you, and your endeavor is accepted and
and appreciation of pearls began in the regions surrounding the Persian Gulf,
the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar, which coincidentally was the same regions
where some of the earliest human civilizations began
Pearls were undoubtedly first discovered
and appreciated in the East or the Orient, but where exactly in the Orient were
they first discovered or, were they discovered and came to be appreciated in
more than one place independent of one another possibly at different times or
periods? The answer to this difficult question
has to be sought by identifying the most ancient sources of pearls in the world,
and obviously the first people who would have discovered and learnt to
appreciate pearls were the people living along the shoreline of these sources.
The most ancient sources of pearls in the world are believed to be the Persian
Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka.
Pre-historic people living in these regions were probably the first to stumble
upon the first pearls known to mankind, obviously during their quest for food.
The fact that these were the same regions where some of the earliest human
civilizations began, seem to consolidate the view that the discovery and
appreciation of pearls also began in these regions. However, it may be difficult
to pinpoint an exact region where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first
began. It was quite possible that such discovery and appreciation began in the
Persian Gulf/Red Sea region (the Middle East) and the Gulf of Mannar region
(India and Sri Lanka), simultaneously or at different times independent of one
another, just as much as the discovery and appreciation of pearls in the New
World (the Americas and the Caribbean) had taken place independently of the Old
World discoveries, long before Columbus discovered America. This webpage
examines the archaeological and other evidences available that might establish
the Persian Gulf/Red Sea region as the possible region where the discovery and
appreciation of pearls first began. Evidences available to support the Gulf of
Mannar region as another possible region where the discovery and appreciation of
pearls first began, are considered separately on a different webpage dedicated
for this purpose.
of the Persian Gulf / Red Sea region as a possible area where the discovery and
appreciation of pearls first began
1) The Persian
evidence of the ancient use of pearls are scarce due to the organic nature of
pearls that could not withstand the ravages of burial for long periods of time
The Persian Gulf/Red Sea region is
believed to be the home of mankind's first civilization, the Sumerian civilization that
arose on the banks of the rivers of Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia, in the period
5,900 B.C - 2,350 B.C. popularly known as the "Cradle of Human Civilization."
The Sumerian empires were followed by the Akkadian (2,350 B.C.-2,193 B.C.),
Babylonian (2,004-1,600 B.C.) and Assyrian empires (2000-1800 B.C. and 1600-1200
B.C.). Some of
the other ancient civilizations of this region were the Ancient Egyptian
Civilization (3,200-1,000 B.C.), Ancient Iranian - Elamite Civilization
(3,200-539 B.C.), and the Ancient Anatolian Civilization (2,500-700 B.C.).
Archaeological evidence from this region such as jewelry found inside
sarcophagi, ancient sculptures, coins etc point to the ancient use of pearls as
ornaments in this region. Such evidences are however scarce given the organic
origin of pearls, that could not withstand the ravages caused by burial for long
periods of time.
piece of pearl jewelry on record from the Persian Gulf region is the 2,500-3,000
year-old (1,000-500 B.C.) Susa pearl necklace from the late Elamite period or the early
Archemenid period of ancient Iran
In fact, the
oldest piece of pearl jewelry on record is from the Persian Gulf region; a 2,500-3,000 year-old pearl necklace, made
up of a triple row of 216 fairly well preserved pearls either from the late Elamite civilization
or the Archemenid period that followed,
dating back approximately to the 9th to 6th-century B.C. discovered in 1901 by
archaeologist J. Morgan, in Susa, the capital of Elam, that was situated in the
southwest of modern day Iran, in the province of Khuzestan, inside a bronze
sarcophagus, belonging to a mummified body. This pearl necklace is a prominent
exhibit in the Persian Gallery of the Louvre Museum in Paris. This is a
significant archaeological discovery that shows the knowledge of pearls and
their appreciation was widespread among the ancient people of Iran. More
archeological evidence of the widespread use of pearls in ancient Iran would
have been eliminated, as pearls being organic gems would not have withstood long
periods of burial extending for thousands of years, unless they were protected
in the secluded environment of a sarcophagus. However, even in the relative
safety of a sarcophagus some of the pearls were in an advanced state of
deterioration and just crumbled on contact reducing the number of pearls from
the original estimated 400 to 500 to a mere 216.
Triple-row pearl and gold Susa necklace, presently
displayed in the Persian Gallery of the Louvre
evidence from the Persian Gulf region, 6,000 years old (4,000 years B.C.), show
that ancient people of this region were buried with a pierced pearl in their
Additional evidence for the popularity
of pearls in ancient Persia comes from sculptures, coins and gem portraits of
Persian Queens that show them wearing pearl ear-pendants. One of the earliest
evidences of the usage of pearls, also comes from the Persian Gulf region, where
archaeologists have found, that almost 6,000 years ago (4,000 years B.C.) people
were buried with a pierced pearl in their right hands. Thus all evidences
available point towards the Persian Gulf region as one of the first to have
discovered pearls and appreciated their beauty and value.
archaeological evidences that show the antiquity of the pearl fishery in the
from a cuneiform inscription on a broken obelisk from Nineveh in ancient
Assyria, probably from the neo-Assyrian period from 911-612 B.C.
A cuneiform inscription on a broken
obelisk probably erected by the king of Nineveh, the 3rd capital city of the
Assyrian empire (presently situated just outside Mosul in Iraq, on the east bank
of the River Tigris) during the neo-Assyrian period from 911-612 B.C. was
deciphered by the famous Assyriologist Professor Jules Oppert. His
translation of this inscription reads as follows :-
In the sea of the changeable winds,
his merchants fished for pearls,
In the sea where the North Star culminates,
they fished for yellow amber.
The reference to "the sea of the
changeable winds" in this inscription,, is a reference to the Persian Gulf,
and provides evidence for the antiquity of the pearl fisheries carried out in
it, dating back to around 900-600 B.C.
Sumerian Cuneiform Inscription
from another cuneiform inscription dated around 2,000 B.C. from Ur of the
Chaldees (Ur Kadim), the birth place of Abraham,
Another ancient cuneiform tablet dated
around 2,000 B.C. was found at Ur of the Chaldees, believed to be the birthplace
of Patriarch Abraham. The inscription on this tablet, refers to a parcel of
"fish eyes" from Dilmun, which some scholars have interpreted to mean pearls
from Bahrain Island, that was sent to Babylon, the capital city of the ancient
Babylonian empire (from around 2,000 B.C to 539 B.C.), which is today in present
Cuneiform Inscription, Nimrud- Mesopotamia
© Iraq Museum
from another cuneiform inscription on an obelisk from Nineveh that originated
during the reign of Shalmenasar I (Temenbar) or Shalmenasar III, dating back
from 1300-800 B.C.
A second cuneiform inscription on an
obelisk from Nineveh, ascribed to the king Shalmanesar III (Temenbar II),
(858-824 B.C.), who expanded the Assyrian empire further by capturing Babylon
and Persia, after his father King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) expanded it
southwards up to the Mediterranen Sea, and also built a palace at Nimrud, that
was twice the size of his father's palace, and covered an area of about 12 acres
with 200 rooms, was deciphered by Sir Henry Rawlinson, which according to him
states that, "In the ninth year of his reign king Temenbar received as
tribute of the king of Chaldees, gold, silver, gems and pearls." This
obelisk provides us with evidence of the use of pearls in Assyria around 800
B.C. However, if the obelisk is from the period of Shalmenasar I, (Temenbar I)
(1273-1244 B.C.) the founder of the Nimrud city in the 13th-century B.C. which
subsequently went into ruins and was rebuilt only in 880 B.C. by Ashurnasirpal
II, our evidence of the use of pearls in ancient Assyria goes back 500 years to
around 1300 B.C. Thus, evidence provided by this obelisk for the use of pearls
dates back from 1300-800 B.C.
provided by foreign writings on the antiquity of the pearl fishery in the
philosopher Theophrastus wrote about the sources of pearls in 315 B.C. which
included the "Sinus Persicus" the Persian Gulf
The Greek philosopher Theophrastus,
pupil and successor of Aristotle in the Peripatetic school who lived in the
period 371-287 B.C. and whose interests apart from philosophy that included
grammar, language, logic, ethics and metaphysics, also included medieval science
such as biology and physics, wrote in 315 B.C. that pearls came from the waters
off the coast of India, and certain islands in the Red Sea and in the Sinus
Persicus (Persian Gulf).
Greek Philosopher Theophrastus
the Greek geographer and writer mentions about the Persian Gulf pearl fisheries
in his writings.
Megasthenes, the Greek geographer and
writer, who was born in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and lived during the
period 350-290 B.C. accompanied Alexander's general Seleucus Nicator in his
Asiatic conquests, and was later appointed as ambassador to the court of
Sandrocottus (Chandragupta Maurya) in Pataliputra, India. He entered India
through the land of the five rivers, the Punjab, and proceeded by road to
Pataliputra. During his assignment in India he visited many regions of India,
including Madurai, the capital of the Pandya kingdom. While in southern India,
he also learnt about the neighboring island of Sri Lanka which he called "Taprobane,"
and its valuable resources, such as pearls and a variety of gemstones.
Subsequently he wrote his famous work "Indica" in which he wrote that Taprobane
was an important source of large pearls. Megasthenes in his works also wrote
about the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf.
Androsthenes and Nearchus explore the eastern Arabian coast in the Persian Gulf
in the 4th-century B.C. and report about the pearling islands of Tylos (Bahrain)
and the island of Stoidis, near the Straits of Hormuz
Androsthenes of Thasos, another
4th-century B.C. geographer and explorer, also participated in the expeditions
of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) in Asia. Alexander sent Androsthenes down the Eupharates
to explore the Arabian coast, which he did with Nearchus, in a triacontor,
sailing farther than Archias of Pella. Previously Archias, who served as
trierarch (commander of trireme-galley used as warship) under admiral Nearchus,
was dispatched down the Eupharates on the same mission, with a galley of 30
oars. He sailed down the Euphrates, entered the Persian Gulf and moved down the
eastern Arabian coast, and eventually reached the Island of Tylos (Bahrain).
Archais reported that the Island of Tylos was "about a day and a night's sail
from the mouth of the Euphrates. Androsthenes and Nearchus reached the Island of
Tylos, and reported about the pearl fishery centered around this island. They
then moved further downwards along the eastern Arabian coast and discovered
another pearling island, a little to the west of the Straits of Hormuz, which
Pliny subsequently named the Island of Stoidis.
refers to the pearl fisheries at Tylos (Bahrain) and Catifa (El Katiff) in his
1st-century A.D. book, "Historalis Naturalis."
During the period of Pliny, the Elder,
the pearl fisheries of Tylos in the Persian Gulf, as well as the Ceylon pearl
fishery were well known for the numerous pearls they produced. Pliny, the Roman
historian wrote in the first-century A.D. in his book the "Historalis Naturalis"
(Book IX, chapter 35), "But the most perfect and exquisite pearls of all
other be they that are gotten about Arabia within the Persian Gulf. He also
states in Book VI Chapter 25) that Catifa (El Katiff) on the Arabian coast
opposite Bahrain, was the center of an important pearl fishery.
Pliny the elder- Roman historian
Charax in the first-century A.D. refers to the pearl fishery around the Island of Tylos
Isidorus Characenus, commonly known as
Isidore of Charax, a Greek Geographer,
who lived in the 1st-century A.D. like Pliny, wrote, "But, Tylos was the
island in the Persian Gulf where pearls are found in abundance." Isidorus
was born in Charax Spasinu, situated at the head of the Gulf, that was first
known as Alexandria, and then Antiochia. Thus anything Isidorus wrote about the
pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf was information he had gathered from personal
knowledge. According to him, "The Island of Tylos, was surrounded by bamboo rafts
from which the natives dive in 20 fathoms of water and bring up bivalves."
Isidore's best know work is Mansiones Parthicae (Parthian Stations), a
description of the overland trade route from Antioch, his birthplace and place
of residence, to India, through the Parthian empire, which was located on the
silk trade route between the Roman empire in the Mediterranean basin and Han
dynasty China. Isidore gives details of caravan stations along the route
maintained by the Parthian (Arsacid) government.
the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf in the 1st-2nd century A.D.
Ptolemy, the 1st-century / 2nd-century
A.D. Alexandrian-Roman mathematician, astronomer and geographer, wrote several
scientific treatises on astronomy, mathematics and geography in the Greek
language, of which his famous treatise "Geographia" was a thorough discussion of
the geographic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. Ptolemy referred to the
Island of Tylos (Bahrain) in the Persian Gulf, around which a thriving pearl
fishery existed from time immemorial. He also wrote about the pearl fishery in
the Gulf of Mannar, both on the South Indian side and the Sri Lankan side.
Periplus of the Erythrean Sea makes mention of the Persian Gulf pearl fisheries
in the 1st-2nd century A.D. but not so extensively as the Gulf of Mannar pearl
The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus
of the Erythrian Sea), was written by an unknown Alexandrian-Greek author, in the
second half of the 1st-century A.D (approximately 60 A.D.) and was a first-hand
account of the sea routes from the Roman-Egyptian ports of the Red Sea and the
Horn of Africa to the ports on the eastern coast of Africa, up to Raphta
(Tanzania); to the Indian sub-continent and the ports along its western and
eastern coast up to the Ganges delta; and the overland route to China from the
port of Barygaza (Bharuch or Broach in Gujarat State in the Gulf of Khambat) in
northwest India, during that period. The route to the east coast of India, is
through the Gulf of Mannar, between India and Sri Lanka. Hence, the extensive
account of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, particularly on the Indian
side of the Gulf, but the pearl fishery of Epidorus (Mannar Island) on the Sri
Lankan side of the Gulf is also mentioned. The Sea routes described in the
Periplus, does not cover the Persian Gulf. Hence, the absence of a detailed
account of the pearl fishery of the Persian Gulf in the Periplus. Yet, a passing
reference is made to the Persian Gulf Pearl fishery, by mentioning a place not
far beyond the mouth of the Persian Gulf, where there are many pearl fisheries.
Pompei the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus)
quantities of pearls and pearl-encrusted crowns and other items taken as
spoils-of-war by Pompey in the 1st-century B.C. during his campaigns in the
east, provides indirect evidence for the prolific nature of the pearl fishery in
the Persian Gulf at that time
Gnaeus Pompeius magnus (Pompey the
Great), who lived during the period, 106 B.C to 48 B.C. was a military and
political leader of the late Roman republic, who distinguished himself in
several military campaigns on behalf of the republic, and eventually shared
power in the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar, who forged a close
relationship with him by giving his daughter Julia in marriage to him. After his
military success in Sicily and Africa, that ensured the grain supplies of Rome,
and the successful campaign against piracy in the Mediterranean Sea, Pompey was
appointed as the commander of the Roman armies in the East. He distinguished
himself again in the campaigns in the East in 64-63 B.C., against Mithridates VI
of Pontus, and the rulers of Syria and Phoenicia, converting them into Roman
provinces. He also subdued Armenia that surrendered without a fight, and thus
the Roman empire extended to over 200 miles east of the upper Euphrates. In all
these campaigns, and especially in the wealthy kingdom of Pontus in northeast
Asia Minor, Pompey's armies took large quantities of spoils-of-war, that were
taken to Rome, and ostentatiously displayed while being taken in procession,
during Pompey's triumphal entry into Rome. Among the treasures taken from
Pontus, included 33 crowns encrusted with pearls, a grotto or shrine dedicated
to the muses and decorated with pearls, and a large portrait of Pompey himself
rendered in pearls. The enormous quantities of pearls taken by Pompey in his
campaigns in the East, from the kingdom of Pontus, Syria - the last remnant of
the Seleucid empire, and Phoenicia, all originated undoubtedly in the Persian
Gulf, the most prolific source of pearls in the region at that time.
Image of Khusrau II, King of Persia on a coin
The largest bejeweled carpet ever produced
incorporating pearls and colored stones, known as the "winter carpet" was made
in Persia (Iran) during the period of rule of Khusrau II between 590 and 628
A.D. (6th and 7th century A.D.) and provides indirect evidence for the prolific
nature of the pearl fishery of the Persian Gulf during this period.
Another instance of
appreciation of pearls comes from Iran (Persia) during the Sassanid period
between the 3rd and 7th centuries A.D. This was the incorporation of pearls,
together with other colored gemstones such as sapphires, emeralds, rubies,
spinels, turquoise etc. as well as gold and silver threads in bejeweled
carpets, to produce high quality artistic creations, adopting naturalistic
themes, such as floral, foliage and animal motifs. During the period of rule of
the Sassanian king Khusrau II, between 590 and 628 A.D. the throne room in his
palace at Ctesiphon was said to have been covered with carpets made of gold
woven fabrics, and pearls embroidered on them. Khusrau II also gets the credit
for producing the largest carpet ever made in the history of mankind, with
dimensions of 140 meters x 27 m (450 ft X 90 ft), that covered the main audience
hall of Sassanian Imperial Palace.at Ctesiphon. This extraordinarily large
carpet, that came to be known as the "winter carpet" or the "spring carpet" was
made of wool, silk, gold and silver, and elaborately decorated with a multitude
of colored gemstones and pearls. The motifs incorporated in the carpet were
spring time scenes, such as birds in flight, flowers in full bloom, ripe fruits
and broad green meadows, believed to have been designed of solid emeralds. It is
said that King Khusrau II, strolled along this seemingly endless bejeweled
carpet during the winter to savor its many spring time scenes. Hence the name
Around the Red Sea
Egyptians used mother-of-pearl shells from the Red Sea for ornamentation during
the pre-dynastic period 5,200 years ago (3,200 B.C.), but first evidence for
such use comes from the 3rd to 6th dynasty approximately 4,500 years ago (2,500
The Red Sea was another ancient source
of pearls, and one of the early human civilizations that arose closer to this
sea, in the Nile river valley, was the ancient Egyptian civilization that lasted
from around 3,200 B.C., with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt
under the first Pharaoh, Narmer to 1,078 B.C., the year of death of pharaoh
Ramses XI, after which Egypt came under the control of a succession of foreign
powers, such as the Libyans, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the
Romans. The period before 3,200 B.C. is known as the pre-dynastic period, and
ancient Egyptians of this period no doubt came to value mother-of-pearl sourced
from the Red Sea, which they incorporated in their ornaments. However, the first
evidence for the use of mother-of-pearl shells in ornaments comes from the
period of the Old Kingdom of Egypt, extending from the 3rd dynasty to the
sixth dynasty, that lasted from 2,686 B.C. to 2,181 B.C. This was also the period
during which the Great Sphinx of Tanis, with a body of a lion and the head
of a king, is believed to have been created.
Mother-of-Pearl cartouches and beads discovered from the graves of the pharaohs
of the 12th-dynasty dating back approximately 2,000 - 1,800 years B.C. (4,000 -
3,800 years ago).
Ancient Egyptians used
mother-of-pearl shells to make cartouches and beads. Beads were strung together
as necklaces and cartouches were hung as pendants from these necklaces. A
cartouche is an oval or oblong figure in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, carved
out or inscribed in materials such as gemstones, mother-of-pearl shells, and
other materials such as plastered walls and smoothened rock surfaces, that
incorporates characters expressing the names and epithets of royal and divine
personages. Cartouches placed in tombs had been very useful to archaeologists
for dating the tomb and its contents. Mother-of-pearl shell cartouches were
found in the pan-bearing graves of the pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty of Egypt
(1,991 B.C. to 1802 B.C.) among the ruins of the ancient Thebes in Luxor.
These shell cartouches were circular or oblong in shape, and strung on chains,
with beads of carnelian, pottery and other materials.
were not popular in ornamentation in ancient Egypt prior to the 6th-century B.C.
Evidence for the use of pearls in jewelry recovered from the tombs belonging to
the period prior to the 6th-century B.C. is very scarce
However, apart from
mother-of-pearl shells, evidences of the use of actual pearls in ornamentation in
ancient Egypt are very rare. According to representations of ancient Egyptian
costumes, it appears that pearls were not employed in their decoration.
Even the jewelry items found in the tombs, such as necklaces, earrings, etc,
made of gold are set only with crystal gems, and contain the remains of only few
the extensive use of pearls in ancient Egypt come only after 525 B.C. following
the conquest of Egypt by Persia, suggesting that ancient Egyptians learnt to
appreciate the beauty and value of pearls only from the Persians
Evidence for the extensive use of pearls in ancient Egypt come only
after the 6th-century B.C. after the conquest of Egypt by Persia. Egypt was
ruled by Persia from 525 B.C., following the conquest by Cambyses II, until 332
B.C. when Alexander the Great captured Egypt from the last Persian ruler Mazaces.
Thus, it appears that the Egyptians learnt to appreciate the beauty and value of
pearls only after the nearly 200 year rule by the Persian kings, who attached a
premium value to these creations of nature. During this period the Persian kings
would have undoubtedly exploited to the maximum the pearl oyster resources of
the Red Sea.
Alexander the great
Greek rule for 300 years continue to use pearls extensively in their brilliant
courts in Alexandria.
The Greek rule of Egypt lasted from 332 B.C. until 30 B.C.
Alexander's successors who ruled Egypt during this period from their new Capital
in Alexandria, were known as the Ptolemies, a dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, a
Macedonian Greek General of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was the last of
the Ptolemies from whom the Romans captured Egypt in 30 B.C. The city of
Alexandria showcased the power and prestige of Greek rule, and was converted to
a seat of learning and culture, centered around its famous library of
Alexandria. The court at Alexandria at the height of its power had an
abundance of pearls, that were used in the decoration of all court regalia.
Bust of Cleopatra of Egypt
last of the Ptolemies of Egypt, who became the undisputed ruler of Egypt with
the help of Julius Caesar in 47 B.C. married him the same year
Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies of Egypt who took the title of "Pharaohs"
and a descendant of one of Alexander the Great's generals. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes.
Cleopatra at first ruled Egypt jointly with her father Ptolemy XII Auletes.
Later, after her father's death she shared power with her brothers Ptolemy XIII
and Ptolemy XIV. A struggle for power ensued between Cleopatra and her brother
Ptolemy XIII, resulting in the outbreak of civil war between troops loyal to
both contenders. Julius Caesar, the mighty Roman warrior and political leader,
reached Alexandria around this time in pursue of his rival Pompey, who was
eventually killed by a Roman officer serving in the court of Ptolemy XIII.
Caesar, who fell in love with Cleopatra, sided with her in the civil war, and
after defeating Ptolemy XIII's forces in the "Battle of the Nile" in 47 B.C.
installed Cleopatra as the undisputed ruler of Egypt. Caesar's relationship with
Cleopatra lasted 14 years, and resulted in the birth of a son, Caesarion.
assassination in 44 B.C. Cleopatra married Caesar's friend Mark Antony, but the
two lovers committed suicide after their defeat at the hands of Octavius in the
civil war of 30 B.C.
After Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C.
the triumvirate that succeeded him consisted of Mark Antony, his close
confidante and associate, Caesar Octavius, Julius Caesar's designated successor
and grandnephew and Lepidus, Caesar's loyal cavalry commander. In the civil war
that followed Mark Antony and Octavius dealt a crushing blow on the forces of
Brutus and Cassius, the main plotters of Caesar's assassination. Mark Antony
later married Caesar's former lover Cleopatra, and the union produced three
children, the twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and another son
Ptolemy Philadelphus. By marrying Cleopatra, Mark Antony intended to use
fabulously wealthy Egypt, as a base to fight Octavius and dominate Rome. This
resulted in another civil war, between Octavius on one side and Mark Antony and
Cleopatra on the other side. The forces of Octavius defeated the forces of Mark
Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, that led to the suicide of both
Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C. The battle signified the end of the Roman
republic and the ascendancy of Octavius as the first Roman Emperor who took the
name Augustus Caesar.
Sculpture of Mark Antony
The story of
Cleopatra's challenge to Mark Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces
on a dinner, as reported by Pliny the Elder, the Roman author, naturalist and
This is one of the well known and often
repeated episodes in the life of Mark Antony and Cleopatra who spent together 14
years of happy married life, and related by Pliny around 100 years after it
transpired. As the story goes, at one of the lavish dinners Cleopatra shared
with Mark Antony, she is reported to have playfully bet Mark Antony, that she
could spend 10 million sesterces on just one dinner. Mark Antony accepted the
bet, and the following night, to his amazement, as usual she had a conventional
meal served, about which there was nothing special. Soon Cleopatra became the
target of ridicule by Mark Antony who had accepted her challenge. Disregarding
Mark Antony's light-hearted and playful torments, the Queen ordered her
second course - just a cup of strong vinegar. As Mark Antony watched in total disbelief, Cleopatra removed one of her priceless pearl
earrings and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl in the earring dissolved in
the vinegar, and soon afterwards the Queen drank the resulting solution without
any hesitation. Mark Antony immediately conceded victory to his beloved queen,
knowing very well that the pearl that was dissolved in the vinegar cost a
fortune. Around this time pearls were priced more than any other crystal
gemstone and gold.
reveals important facts about the appreciation of pearls in Egypt in the
first-century B.C. in spite of its lack of credibility
The main component of pearls is
aragonite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate, that can dissolve slowly in
Vinegar which is dilute acetic acid. However, if the pearl is first crushed
before adding vinegar, we can expect a faster reaction to take place. The story
as related by Pliny has received general acceptance, despite the fact that a
whole pearl will not dissolve easily in vinegar, and its difficult to imagine
how Cleopatra was able to gulp a glass full of the sour acidic fluid at just one
go, when even palatable pickles made out of vinegar are only consumed sparingly
as an appetizer !!! However, in spite of the lack of credibility of the episode
as related by Pliny, the episode itself reveals an important fact about the
appreciation of the value of pearls in Egypt at that time, in the first-century
B.C. The lavish use of pearls in the courts of the Ptolemies in Alexandria is a
well-known fact, and Queen Cleopatra was no exception.
Persian Gulf region the most probable region where pearls came to be first
discovered and appreciated ?
discoveries and cuneiform inscriptions provide valuable evidence to show
the antiquity of the Persian Gulf fisheries, and the region as one of the
oldest, where the discovery and appreciation of pearls probably started.
Thus, out of the ancient civilizations
of the Persian Gulf region and the region surrounding the Red Sea, two of the
most ancient sources of pearls in the world, the use and appreciation of pearls
by pre-historic peoples from the Persian Gulf region, seem to be well
authenticated by archaeological evidence dating back to around 6,000 years (6
millennia) and written evidence in the form of cuneiform inscriptions on
obelisks dating back to 2,000-1,000 years B.C. from ancient Babylon and Assyria.
The ancient archaeological evidence and the evidence from inscriptions, are
subsequently supplemented by written evidence originating from the writings of
ancient Greek and Roman writers, travelers and geographers from the 4th-century
B.C. to 2nd-century A.D., such as Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.), Megasthenes
(350-290 B.C), Androsthenes (300-400 B.C.), Nearchus (360-300 B.C.), Pliny
(23-79 A.D.), Isidorus (1st-century B.C./1st-century A.D.), Ptolemy (90-168
A.D.) and the unknown Alexandrian-Greek author (1st-century A.D.) of the
Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. All these ancient writers refer to the Persian
Gulf pearl fisheries as the most ancient in the world, that had existed from
The use and
appreciation of pearls spread to Egypt only after the Persian conquest of Egypt
in 525 B.C.
The use and appreciation of pearls spread to the people living around the Red Sea region
in ancient Egypt,
only much later in the 6th-century B.C. after military conquest of the region by
the Persians, who had a long tradition of using pearls, and attached great value
to these organic gemstones perfected by nature. After, political power in Egypt,
shifted from the Persians to the Greeks and later the Romans, the knowledge of
the use and appreciation of pearls spread to the western nations, who placed
great emphasis on this newly acquired knowledge. Pearls during this period were
considered to be more valuable than gold, and the Greeks and Romans went all out
to acquire them, sending their ships to the sources where they were found, such
as the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar, or undertaking military expeditions
to acquire them from nations that had large collections in their treasuries.
of southern Mesopotamia, were probably the first humans to discover and
Thus, out of the two regions, the
Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf region appears to be the most
probable region where the first pearls were discovered and came to be
appreciated. Ancient Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia (5,900 B.C - 2,350 B.C),
the "cradle of human civilization" with a coastline on the Persian Gulf, were
probably the first humans who discovered the pearls, and came to appreciate
their beauty, and eventually use them as adornments.
History of the
Persian Gulf pearl fisheries after the 7th-century A.D. to modern times is
considered on a separate webpage
In the above article on the History of
the discovery and appreciation of pearls, the history of the Persian Gulf pearl
fishery has been considered only up to the 6th-7th century A.D., the period in
which the world's largest bejeweled carpet incorporating Persian Gulf pearls
were produced by Khusrau II. The history of the Persian Gulf fisheries after the
Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th-century A.D. to modern tomes are
considered in detail on a separate web-page.
You are welcome to discuss this post/related
topics with Dr Shihaan and other experts from around the world in
to Famous Pearls
1) Pearl of Kuwait
Sara Pearl/Tavernier Pearl/Shaista Khan Pearl
History of the Discovery and Appreciation of Pearls -
The Book of the Pearl - Chapter 1, Pearls Amongst the Ancients - Kunz &
Chapter VI - The Pearl Fisheries of the
2) Pearls - Jewish Encyclopedia.com -
3) Talmud - From Wikipedia, the free
4) Hebrew Bible - From Wikipedia, the
5) Ancient Egypt - From Wikipedia, the
6) Julius Caesar - from Wikipedia, the
7) Cleopatra - from Wikipedia, the free
8) Are Women Allowed to Use pearls -
Bible vs Qur'an - By Prof. Dr, Ibrahim Khalil. Ain-Shams University. Cairo,
9) Nimrud - From Wikipedia, the free
10) The Assyrian King's List, period of
rule and highlights of achievements - www.aina.org
11) Megasthenes - From Wikipedia, the
12) Seleucus I Nicator - From Wikipedia,
the free encyclopedia
13) Periplus of the Erythrean Sea - From
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
15) Beyond Price - Pearls and Pearl
Fishing : Origins to the Age of Discoveries - R.A. Donkin
16) The Pearl Book - The Definitive
Buying Guide : How to Select, Buy, Care for and Enjoy Pearls - Antoinette