Pearls — Gems of the Ages
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

Pearls — Gems of the Ages

Pearls have been revered and treasured from the very earliest of times. In fact they were considered the most valuable of gems until late in the nineteenth century, when diamonds supplanted them. It is not difficult to understand the attraction pearls held for ancient peoples. Their translucent beauty embodied such virtues as purity and chastity. Religious symbolism was also eventually added to the folklore of pearls.

Pearls were even used for medicinal purposes. Concoctions of ground—up pearls were drunk greedily by Mogul emperors in the belief that their virility would improve. Effective or not, they probably swore by this preparation. There were other therapeutic uses, all just as bizarre and irrational. Charles VI of France regularly drank concoctions of ground—up pearls in a vain attempt to restore his sanity. Perhaps his mind was too unbalanced for him to notice the stomach aches that followed his drink.

When Rome was in its glory, no self—respecting Roman woman was without her pearls, for sumptuous pearl jewelry was an ingredient in the Romans' addiction to extravagant luxury. The women not only wore pearls during the day but also routinely adorned themselves with pearls before going to sleep to ensure that their dreams would be filled with lustrous gems.

The esteem for pearls among the Romans was so extraordinary that they may have influenced history. It has been reported that Julius Caesar undertook the invasion of the British Isles in 55 B.C. because of the rumors of fine and plentiful freshwater pearls in Scotland. Appreciation for the gems among noblemen rivaled that of the women. Caligula decorated his slippers with pearls and even draped a pearl necklace around the neck of his beloved horse Incitatus. Nero's scepter was heavily laden with pearls.

Considering how difficult it must have been for ancient humans to obtain pearls, their reverence for this beautiful gemstone is quite understandable. The oldest surviving pearl necklace dates back to about 350 B.C. It was unearthed at Susa in southwestern Iran, the site of a Persian king's winter palace.

Precious gems often yield strange stories of lost mines and buried treasure. Pearls are no exception. Recently an archaeologist, exploring the ruins of a 400—year—old Spanish village, noticed a piece of dried cloth protruding from the ground. His curiosity aroused, he investigated. His excavation brought to light a fabulous cache of more than 3,000 precious pearls, all of which had been buried only a few inches under the surface. The piece of cloth sticking out of the ground, which had served as a waybill to this treasure, was one of the few bits of wrapping material that had not disintegrated. Despite this exposure and the 400 years they had spent in the ground, the pearls had lost none of their luster!

The estimated value of the treasure was nearly $500,000. However, the pearls remained shrouded in mystery: who put them there, where did they originate, and why were they abandoned?