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The *Brief* and Early History of Pearls

Our very first blog for 2014! 2013 ended with a bang, after having shows every weekend across the Christmas period. We took a well deserved break in January in order to create new design ideas I had come up with during the course of December, and are happy to announce that these new pieces will be making their way to the website in the next month or so! Other exciting news- we have been invited to have a stall at the Hestia comedy fundraiser, where we will be donating one of our lovely Birds of Paradise pieces to the charity auction – watch this space for more details closer to the time!

Anyway, enough about that. After chatting to some friends about what Ava Design should bring to our blog this year, it became evident that many people wanted to know more about pearls. With this in mind, we have decided to start a set of short blogs dedicated to providing some information about these objects of beauty, with the first in our series with the history of the pearl.

The English word pearl comes from the French perle, originally from the Latin perna, which essentially translates to sea mussel. Diving for sea pearls began as early as 206 BC during the Han Dynasty in China within the South China Sea, and around 500 BC by the Pandyan Dynasty (one of the three ancient Tamil Dynasties) within the Indian Ocean. Arab merchants began selling pearls from as early at 702 BC along the trade route from Basra, near Baghdad, passing through the Arabian Gulf and into China. Whilst pearls were gaining popularity in the East, it wasn’t until the 1400s when the Spanish discovered pearls on the shores of Cubagua and Margarita (some 200km north of Venezuela) that pearls started gaining popularity in the Western royalty and gentry.

Before the beginning of the 20th century, divers manually pulled oysters from ocean floors and river bottoms and checked them individually for pearls. This form of pearl hunting was the most common (but also the most inefficient) way of harvesting pearls. Not all mussels and oysters produce pearls, so it was common that within haul of three tons, only three or four oysters will produce perfect pearls. Pearl ships would be out at sea for many months during the harvest season when the water was warmer, resulting in an uncomfortable life for the pearl diver. Diving itself was very dangerous; there were the immediate risks of sharks, stingrays and other sea creatures, but also, ear perforation that often lead to deafness, constant conjunctivitis that eventually led to blindness and skin infections and bedsores from lack of fresh water to clean the wound properly. The health sacrifices of the divers and the rarity of the pearls they found resulted in the pearl becoming one of the most expensive and sought after luxury item, and the possession of such a commodity a statement to others of your wealth and position in society.

I sincerely hope you enjoyed the first blog in our informative series on pearls, and look out for the next one, where we talk about the beginning of freshwater pearl cultivation. I want to finish this blog by listing below some of the most famous sea pearls in history;

The Hope Pearl
The Hope Pearl

Considered to be one of the largest saltwater pearls in existence, the Hope Pearl was first acquired by Henry Philip Hope in the 19th century. Hope was a banker and collector of gems, whose collection contained nearly 150 natural pearls. He was also an owner of the Hope Diamond. The Hope Pearl remained in the Hope collection at a South Kensington Museum for many years, before it was sold at auction by Christie’s in 1886. In 1913, it was appraised at $17,000, and in 1974, it was offered for private sale for $200,000 and purchased by H.E. Mohammed Mahdi Al-Tajir. It has since been sold and is the property of a private collector, and is currently displayed at the British Museum of Natural History. The Hope Pearl is a white drop-shaped saltwater blister pearl of 1,800 grains (450 carats).


La Peregrina

One of the largest and perfectly-pear-shaped pearls in the world, La Peregrina, meaning pilgrim or wanderer in Spanish, was found in the Gulf of Panama in 1513 by an African slave. The pearl was worn by many, including Queen Mary I, both wives of Phillip IV of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte (brother of Napoleon), and continued its journey until finally ending up with James Hamilton, Duke of Abercorn. The pearl was lost twice in the possession of the Hamilton family; once in a sofa at Windsor Castle and again during a ball at Buckingham Palace. Luckily, it was recovered both times. Richard Burton purchased the necklace for $37,000 from the Hamilton family and gave it to Elizabeth Taylor for Valentine’s Day. Elizabeth once lost the pearl herself, searching high and low for it, only to find it in the mouth of one of her dogs. She later commissioned Cartier to redesign the necklace with pearls, diamond & rubies.


The Pearl of Asia

The Pearl of Asia is a beautiful aubergine shaped nacreous pearl.  This magnificent baroque pearl is the largest nacreous pearl in the world at 600 carats (2,400 grains).  Rumor has it that it was discovered in the Persian Gulf some time in the 16th or 17th century.  The Shah Jahan, the very Mughal ruler who was responsible for the architectural marvel the Taj Mahal, gave it to his wife as a gift.  Nadir Shar, King of Persia, claimed the pearl after his siege of Delhi in the mid 1700s, and  Shar went on to give the pearl to Emperor Qianlong of China.  The emperor used the jewel to adorn his tomb upon his death.   Grave robbers looted the tomb, and The Pearl of Asia was lost for years until it reappeared in Hong Kong. It was subsequently sold in Paris.


The Pearl of Lao Tzu

Pearls of God, also called the Pearl of Lao Tzu, takes the credit as the largest pearl the world has ever known. This pearl was discovered by a Muslim Filipino diver in the island of Palawan, Philippines on May 7 1934 and is derived from the giant clams of the familia Tridacnidae. Weighing 6.37 pounds,  its length is 23.8 inches and the price is expected to reach $40 million. The Pearls of God is no longer exhibited to the public, and is now preserved as part of the heritage inventory of Victor M. Barbish, who bought it in 1980.

Pearl of Lao Tzu


The Arco Valley Pearl

The Acro Valley Pearl is a baroque pearl that was given to Kublai Kahn by Marco Polo. It is considered to be the second biggest pearl ever. The pearl resurfaced in May of 2007 when it came up for auction in Abu Dhabi. A collector from the United Arab Emirates claims he bought the pearl from a French owner for 8 million dollars, but in fact, it was still owned by a European company as of August 2009. The Acro Valley Pearl is white with pink overtones and weighs 2301 grains (575 carats).

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