Treasures from the East: Historic Pearls
The trade of natural pearls from the Persian Gulf was far-reaching, as they were objects of desire among the nobility and elite of Europe, India, and China.
The earliest evidence of pearls in jewelry was found in Susa, Iran. A magnificent necklace of 216 pearls divided into three equal rows was recovered from the bronze sarcophagus of an Achaemenid princess.
In ancient China, pearls were highly treasured and believed to have magical powers. King Zhao Mo of the Western Han dynasty slept swaddled in pearls. Pictured above are examples of his pearl-embroidered bedding and pearl pillow stuffing, ca. 205 BCE - 24 AD, from the Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King.
The Paphos Pin illustrates a form of jewelry that was known in Greece in the second century BCE. It was discovered from the temple of Aphrodite at Paphos, on the island of Cyprus. The 14-mm pearl in this gold-plated pin is the largest ancient pearl ever found. It is topped with a small, 4 mm, pearl.
In ancient Rome, the popularity of pearls coincided with a period of glory of the empire. A popular type of earring consisted of two to three pearls dangling from gold wire which would make a chiming sound as they clinked together, so the wealth of aristocratic women could not only be seen but also heard. Numerous examples have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
Pearls were often combined with emeralds. While gold was mined in a number of Roman provinces, emeralds, like pearls, were imported from the East.
Dirlam, Dona M., et al. “Pearl Fashion through the Ages.” Gems & Gemology, vol. 21, no. 2, 1 July 1985, pp. 63–78, www.gia.edu/doc/Pearl-Fashion-Through-the-Agesv.pdf, 10.5741/gems.21.2.63.
“Western Han Nanyue King's Tomb Museum.” China.org.cn, http://www.china.org.cn/travel/2012-08/16/content_26250036_10.htm.
“Romans Prized These Jewels More than Diamonds.” History, 2 Apr. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/history/history-magazine/article/roman-republics-captivation-with-pearls.