Submerged beneath a southern sea, inside a shell something stirs. It itches, it irritates and a shellfish flinches. It flexes, undulating its body and tries to rid itself of the intruder, but to no avail. The thing will not be moved. So the shellfish begins the long process of covering the irritating interloper with nacre, in layer after layer, until, instead of an unwanted incursion, there is a smooth sphere that now longer scratches the mollusc’s delicate body. And this sphere is now very much wanted indeed, as it is now a pearl.
|The internal structure of a bi-valve|
It’s a common misconception that pearls are formed when a grain of sand makes its way into an oyster shell, but the intruder is more likely to be a tiny parasite, the larva of another sea-creature or one of the oyster’s own eggs that gets covered in mother-of-pearl. It’s not just oysters either, as many bi-valve molluscs form pearls around invading irritants, including mussels and clams. The shells of many molluscs and brachiopods are made up of three layers; an outer layer, called the periostracum, a middle prismatic layer and an inner nacreous layer.
|The Pearl Fishers|
Inside the shell, the mantle, a flap or fold of flesh, covers all of either the right or left side of the nacreous layer, and forms a ridge or margin at the outermost edge, from which the two outermost layers are produced, whilst the rest of the mantle secretes the pearly inner layer. Should a irritating particle or parasite become lodged between the mantle and the upper layers, nacre is secreted over it and it is incorporated into the body of the shell, whereas something that enters the interior of the creature becomes covered in layers of nacre and a pearl is produced.
|Clara Eugenia of Spain in her Pearls|
At first, the layers conform to the contours of the foreign body, but over time the increasing numbers of layers tend to produce a spheroidal or spherical shape, unless the intrusion is so pronounced that an irregular – or baroque – pearl is made, and these command a lower price, purely on aesthetic grounds. It is reasonable to assume that pearls were the earliest of valued gems, as fish-eating ancient peoples would have inevitably have come across them, and their immediate natural beauty, free from the need of further art to enhance it, must have ensured their desirability.
|The Rana of Dholpur in his Pearls|
Pearls appear in the ancient Indian religious texts, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and in Hindu mythology the pearl is associated with Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, who drew one from the sea to adorn his daughter, Pandaia, on her wedding day.
|The Dowager Empress of China in her Pearls|
In the ancient Cingalese chronicles, the Mahavansa and the Dipavansa, pearls are mentioned as being sent as gifts from Ceylon; the Chinese Shu King notes that, in the twenty-third century BCE, Yü received river pearls in tribute, and the ancient Chinese dictionary the Ny’ha (c.1000 BCE) mentions pearls as precious jewels that come from Shen-si province.
|The Maharajah of Patiala in his Pearls|
Authorities vary in their opinion on the translations of various words for precious jewels in the Old Testament, but there are numerous mentions of pearls in the New Testament, as there are in the Talmud, where they signify something either very costly or very beautiful.
|The Ashburnham Gospel decorated with Pearls|
The Quran has pearls aplenty too, particularly in Paradise, where the trees bear pearls and emeralds. Ancient Greek writers mention pearls as early at the fifth century BCE, and later Roman writers like Pliny write about them, including a description of Pompey’s victory parade where thirty-three crowns of pearls were displayed. The Emperor Caligula had pearls sewn into the harness of Incitatus, his favourite horse that legend says he raised to the rank of Senator, and he wore slippers embroidered with pearls.
|Elizabeth I in her Pearls|
By the Middle Ages, every Emperor, King or Pope worth his salt would have his regalia made from gold and studded with diamonds, jewels and pearls. At the meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in 1520, the banqueting chamber was decorated with embroidered gold and pearl hangings, when Henry was introduced to Anne of Cleves, he wore a coat of purple velvet with clasps made from gold, diamonds, rubies and oriental pearls, and Anne’s wedding gown was made from cloth of gold embroidered with large flowers made from pearls.
|Elizabeth of France in her Pearls|
When the New World was discovered, a new source of pearls emerged; Montezuma gave precious gifts to Cortez, who returned these golden presents, with emeralds, rubies and pearls, to Europe. The high walls and the roof of the temple of Tolomecco were made from mother of pearl, with strings of pearls and plumes of feathers hanging from the walls, the graves of its kings had shields adorned with pearls placed over them, and in the centre of the temple were vases filled with costly pearls.
|Grand Pearl Diadem of the French Crown Jewels|
Pearls flooded back to the courts of Europe; Marie de Medici wore a gown to the christening of her son that was decorated with 3,000 diamonds and 32,000 pearls, and the Elector Maximilian of Bavaria sent his future bride a present of a necklace of 300 selected pearls, each worth 1,000 guldens.
|The Czarina of Russia in her Pearls|
Tomorrow – Myth and Magic of Pearls