Pearls are the oldest gem in history. We know they have been used as a form of adornment, dating back as far as 420 BC thanks to a fragment of pearl jewelry found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess.
No one will ever know who were the earliest people to collect and wear pearls. George Frederick Kunz in his 1908 masterpiece, The Book of the Pearl, states his belief that an ancient fish-eating tribe along the coast of India, initially appreciated the shape and lustre of saltwater pearls, which they discovered while opening oysters for food.
Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very rich.
Julius Caesar even passed a law stating that only ruling classes we allowed to wear them. From Cleopatra to Grace Kelly, every Queen and princess have been known to favor pearls as jewelry.
Queen Margherita of Italy, 1883
The United States was actually considered the “Land of Pearls” by early colonizers that found native americans wearing natural pearls all over Ohio, Tennessee River and the Mississippi basins. These areas produced minimal amounts of very large white colored pearls until the disappearance of the industry.
Pearls were found all over the world from California to the Middle East, South pacific islands and Japan. Even though those pearl supplies continued into the 1800s, overfishing and pollution took its toll as the United States industrialized. Then, toward the end of the last century, the single event that forever reshaped the pearl trade unfolded in Japan.
Even though two other Japanese gentlemen patented their technique of culturing pearls, history most often only remembers Kokichi Mikimoto.
The son of a noodle maker, he set out to discover how to get oysters to produce pearls on demand.
Unlike gemstones that are mined from the earth, a living organism produces a pearl. A pearl is formed when an irritant, such as a parasite or piece of shell, becomes accidentally lodged in an oyster's soft inner body, causing it to secrete a crystalline substance called nacre, which builds up around the irritant in layers until a pearl is formed. Cultured pearls are formed through the same process, the only difference being that the irritant is implanted in the oyster, a little round bead called a nucleus, rather than entering it by chance.
Mikimoto experimented with everything from glass to lead to clay to wood. Through many years of trial and error, he found he had the highest success rates when he inserted a round nucleus cut from U.S. mussel shells. Although some countries continue to test other nuclei, U.S. mussel shells have been the basis for almost all cultured saltwater pearls for 90 years.
Mikimoto forever changed the pearl and jewelry industry by making pearls accessible to anyone and everyone.