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◊ The Queen of Gems ◊




Walk into the historical realm of interconnected trade networks, and you will witness the Arab merchants and camel caravans that played a significant role in it. Arab culture is known for its burning of precious incense (frankincense and myrrh), spices, date palms, even mineral riches. “The trade route known as the Incense Road, went as far as Mediterranean port city of Gaza”.

With such an abundant array of expensive trade goods, it was reasonable to talk of the riches that the desert lands held, as a result the region was called ‘Arabia Felix’ (meaning ‘Arabia the Blessed’ or ’Happy Arabia’). From these lands arose enchanting tales which symbolised this wealth; we know them as ‘The Arabian Nights’ (You may have heard this title in the opening merchant song of Disney’s ‘Aladdin’... No?...Here’s the link, you can open the video's description to read along the lyrics, ENJOY!).


One of these trade goods were the pearls of the region, after all, they were an ideal item of trade due to the amount of natural oyster beds in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, plus they took up very little space when traveling. As you may know, unlike other gemstones pearls are not mined from the earth but are in fact produced by living organisms underwater (here’s a video to show you the process).


Being a natural piece of polished perfection, the shimmering pearl is given the entitlement of ‘queen’. Pearls have long been seen as a magnificent ancient jewel; “fragments of the oldest known pearl jewellery, now on display at the Louvre in Paris, was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC”, pearls were even “presented as gifts to Chinese royalty as early as 2300 BC”. It has long been foretold health and long life follow those who wear the jewel. Mystery lies in the first discovery - Arabian legends once claimed pearls to be the result of oysters swallowing dew drops that fell into the sea. Most likely, the first humans to encounter this treasure would have been trying to find food by the seashore.

Indeed, it is said the best pearls emerged from the Arab world, “from the waters of Arabian (Persian) Gulf, particularly near Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman” and thus the pearling business for these countries was important to their economies because of the trade with the other lands, which included that of the Roman Empire and Egypt. The pearl is a gem mentioned in The Holy Quran, the pearl is actually mentioned in The Bible as well. Precious stones in The Holy Quran are mentioned to signify the blessings bestowed upon us; pearls are in fact talked about as a gem of heaven that make up the hollow homes for heavenly dwellers. The structure of mosques encompass this symbolism with the architectural design of the dome. Pearls in religious scriptures are also generally mentioned with the symbolism of purity and modesty.


For centuries, pearls were regarded as valuable gems in different cultures. To this day, they are still seen as one of the most enchanting jewels of ancient times. Until modern times, pearls were an exclusive item, only available to the wealthy. Rome in particular made use of pearls in their jewelry for the elite class, “considered the ultimate status symbol. So precious were the spherical gems that in the 1st century BC, Julius Caesar passed a law limiting the wearing of pearls only to the ruling classes”. If you track ‘Pearls’ in the 'Classical Period' map section of this Interactive Map, you’ll see the picture of the necklace fragment above, this combination of pearl, gold and emerald is an example of what once would have been "a popular jewelry style during 100 - 200 CE in the Roman Empire".

This luxury item was not only valued for jewels and decoration, pearls were also used as medicine after they were ground into powder. "People once believed that pearls were directly connected with the moon, and thus possessed magical powers. Pearls have been referenced throughout ancient mythology and folklore". 

There is even a tale that tells of Cleopatra dissolving a pearl in a glass of liquid vinegar, and all to win a bet against the Roman leader ( and her lover ) Marc Antony, to prove she could host the most expensive meal in history, this really puts a natural pearl's value into perspective (how much would you pay for a 'Pearl Cocktail'?). The Egyptians valued the pearl just like the Romans; they treasured the gem so much that some leaders were buried (or more accurately mummified/embalmed) with their precious pearl collection by their side.

The Greeks also considered the pearl to be a gem of great value, but in terms of ceremonies and romantic customs such as marriage, they saw it as more of a symbol of love rather than ultimate status. The Greek word for pearl actually means unique, further giving way to the sense that no two pearls are thought to be the same, each is rare and extremely valuable (greatly recognized across cultures).

In parallel, The Bible presents the symbol of the pearl as a treasure of great price. As a representation of the Church that Yahweh seeks, the pearl is one of a kind and is worth one's everything.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it."

The symbol of the pearl is chosen over other precious adornments common in the Bible, such as gold and silver, and a variety of gemstones, because of how pearls are formed. The oyster secretes nacre around an irritant which it is unable to dispel. The consistency of the nacre gradually formed in a spherical shape enables the oyster to be more comfortable and the pearl to take shape. This is akin to Christians (pearls) who are able to develop godly character (nacre) in dealing with trials and tribulations (irritants) of life.

The rarity of pearls in this context comes from the challenge it takes for humans to choose to develop godly character over a lifetime. This is what makes the pearl so precious, the Christians so worth the sacrifice of God, who is the merchant who would sell everything for that pearl.



So you see, pearls are a valuable part of world civilizations. Of course, now we have the development of cultured oysters and pearls are available to the masses, but they are nothing compared to nature's gem which is why nobility and royalty sought after them. Natural pearls today are rather scarce, the value this places upon them is evident through the prices seen in auctions and bidding wars, especially when it comes to antique pearl jewelry. As a final note, check out this page from the 'Imperial, We Are Pearls' website, it's full of some interesting videos about this lovely queen, the natural among gems.


NOTE: Direct quotes have been hyperlinked to their respective online source via the first few words, images have been hyperlinked with their respective image URL, other words are also linked to pages relevant to what is being discussed and these single words are put in italics.