Of martyrs and madonnas, purity and hedonism—pearls have occupied center stage since time immemorial. Considered to be the oldest gem in the world, the pearl brings to mind an otherworldly delicacy that is hard to define.
Text: Trishita Khanderia
Its origins are lost to the ravages of time; first said to be discovered by the nomads who traversed along seashores looking for food, the pearl has been used as a decorative element since at least 2300 BC, when pearl jewels were recorded as gifts to Chinese royalty. Naturally, its role as a status symbol only grew through the years, solidifying when the mighty Julius Caesar passed a law limiting the ownership of pearls to only the ruling classes in the 1st century BC. Today, pearls evoke an air of refinement.
Much like its luminosity, its process of creation is truly one-of-a-kind. Unlike gemstones that need to be mined from the earth, a living and breathing mollusk produces the pearl. Interestingly, it's formed when an irritant, such as a parasite or a piece of the shell becomes accidentally lodged in the oyster’s body; the pearl develops around this irritant. Imagine a delicate crystalline substance, known as the nacre, developing layer by layer over a period of time! Traditionally, the only way of collecting pearls was through divers who retrieved pearl oysters even though they were incredibly rare—imagine, only one in 10,000 mussels creates a natural pearl.
Today, cultured pearls have become more popular, supported by Kokichi Mikimoto’s efforts in the late 1800s to create the world’s first cultured pearl. Though that same formation of nacre occurs, the irritant is implanted in the oyster rather than leaving it all to chance. This revolutionized the pearl jewellery industry as a more accessible source was created. Coco Chanel, known for her innovative yet provocative use of layers of pearl necklaces(known as sautoirs), modernized pearl jewellery and created a furore among women.
Image source: @molar.28
The beauty of the pearl not only lies in its iridescence and luminosity but also in the meanings ascribed to it. In ancient China, pearls were a sign of purity whilst crusaders in the Dark Ages wore them proudly on the battlefield as they were considered to be an emblem of safety.
A pillar of trade since Roman times, the discovery of pearls in Central and South America in the 15th& 16th centuries ushered in the Pearl Age which is intertwined with the Renaissance—when Louis XIII was baptized in 1601, the Queen mother Marie de’ Medici wore an ensemble decorated with thirty thousand pearls.
Raja Ravi Varma, Lady in the moonlight ( 1889 )
Far from being valued only for their aesthetics, pearls have made their mark through the years in the Indian subcontinent, so much so that they are mentioned in the Rig Veda, which is said to have been written over 3000 years ago! Considered to be a talisman of purity and a symbol of Krishna, pearls only grew in importance as trade flourished.
Often considered to be the epicentre of pearl processing and trading, Hyderabad came to be known as the “City of Pearls” close to 400 years ago – a moniker that applies to this day. Pearls became embedded in royal lifestyles, be it through jewellery, beauty regimens (where ground-up pearls provided the ultimate glow-up) or even as a symbol of power – princesses were often weighed against pearls for their birthdays!
Through the years, the pearl has stood for feminine grace, be it Botticelli’s Venus emerging from the oyster shell or Vermeer’s exploration of adolescent beauty in Girl with a Pearl Earring or in Raja Ravi Varma's Lady in the Moonlight where you can see her wearing a string of pearls along with other pieces of jewellery. This femininity of the pearl is further strengthened by its bond with the moon. Mysterious, subtle, maternal—the moon rules over the seas from which the pearl emerges. The emotionality and sensuality of the moon is reflected in the pearl’s serene beauty.
With the convergence of royalty and rarity, the pearl came to symbolize the soul’s journey from life to death and beyond. Its creation suspends belief—how can something so beautiful be born in a being of such little importance? An aura of magic surrounds the pearl that many ancient Asian cultures thought would support the soul in the afterlife.
The beauty of our baroque pearl comes from its perceived imperfections—the non-symmetrical pearls add a sense of individuality and character while the seed pearl is an ode to minimalism. These tiny pearls add incredible detail even though they weigh less than a quarter of a grain! And so, at Lune, we continue to be fascinated by the pearl—by its myriad meanings and that play of light that's so captivating.
In this series, we explore our forever love affair with the exquisite pearl through history, culture and style as we drop new iridescent baroque beauties to our existing pearl jewellery collection. You can explore our baroque pearl collection here.
About the author // After studying the history and culture of fashion, @trishitakd is constantly searching for meaning, even if it's at the bottom of a glass.