Pearls are Organic Gemstones Perfected by Nature and Possessing Unique Optical Properties that Cannot be Replicated by Human Intervention

Pearls are organic gems produced by Mollusks such as bivalves (oysters, mussels, clams, scallops etc.) and gastropods (sea snails like melo melo sea snail, queen conch, horse conch, abalone sea snail etc), considered as gifts of nature, that come ready-made, already perfected by nature, not requiring human intervention such as cutting and polishing, and possessing a luster and brilliance as in nacreous pearls, that sometimes exceeds such properties, created by man in inorganic gemstones using modern technical skills and innovations; and possessing unique optical properties such as orient and overtones, caused by the refraction of light as it passes through successive layers of nacre, giving rise to unique color combinations, that is not found in any inorganic gemstone including diamonds, and that cannot be replicated by human intervention.

Pearls were Perhaps the First Gemstones Discovered and Appreciated by Pre-historic Man

Being ready-made gems that come perfect from the hands of nature, pearls were perhaps the first gemstones discovered by ancient  and pre-historic man, during his perennial quest for food, one of early man’s pre-occupations as a food gatherer. Having made the discovery that freshwater mussels and saltwater oysters were ideal sources of food, ancient man collected them by the thousands from  the rivers and the sea. In the process of shucking these mussels and oysters ancient man would have stumbled upon the first pearls, with their beautiful luster and brilliance, which he came to like and appreciate for their beauty. Had the pearls been rough, and dull in appearance they would not have captured his attention, and like other inorganic gemstones such as diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires, etc. pearls would have waited for several millennia more until man’s cultural evolution would have progressed to that extent, enabling cutting and polishing to reveal their beauty.

Further, by experience pre-historic man would also have learnt that pearls were not found in all oysters and were elusive and extremely rare, found just in a few oysters out of thousands of oysters shucked. Such extreme rarity would have naturally instilled in ancient man an admiration and awe for these elusive creations of nature, to which he ascribed  a spiritual provenance, fit only to be adorned by members of the royalty and nobility, who were considered as agents of the creator on earth. Pearls and the more easily obtainable mother-of-pearl shells were among the first materials of adornment incorporated into items of jewelry by ancient man. However, the use of pearls in adornments evolved simultaneously with ancient man’s ability to drill various materials, both of organic and inorganic origin and convert them into beads.

Where exactly in the world were the first pearls discovered and came to be appreciated?

Pearls without any doubt were first discovered and appreciated in the East or the Orient, where they came to be associated with the monarchies and culture and religion of the people

It is not known exactly where the first pearl was discovered and came to be appreciated. But, we know for certain that it was in the East or the Orient, where the pearl first became associated with different aspects of their culture and religion, and adorned not only their deities and monarchs, but also the temples and palaces in which they resided. Pearls adorned the paraphernalia associated with the monarchy, such as thrones, crowns, tiaras, aigrettes, and carpets apart from jewelry items worn by them such as multistrand-necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings etc.  Pearls became symbols of purity, sanctity, and perfection and came to represent higher human values such as virtue and love, wisdom and justice, and spirituality and righteousness.

Ancient historical records make no mention of pearls having been obtained elsewhere than in the Orient, up to the time of Julius Caesar  when Roman armies invaded Britain, to take control of the freshwater pearl resources of the country, particularly in Scotland where they were available in abundance. It is said that pearls together with gold underpinned the Roman currency at that time, apart from the demand from the members of the aristocracy who incorporated them in their ornaments. The ancient use of pearls in the Orient combined with the fact that the most ancient source of pearls in the world, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar,  were all situated in the Orient, confirms that the Orient was the region where the first pearls were discovered and appreciated.

Lines of evidence that prove the Orient was the region where pearls were first discovered and came to be appreciated

Thus, evidence that proves that pearls were first discovered and came to be appreciated in the Orient can be summarized as follows:-

1) Historical and archaeological evidence of the ancient use of pearls in the Orient, that came to be associated with their culture and religion.

2) The fact that only the Orient is mentioned as the source of pearls by ancient historians.

3) The fact that the most ancient sources of pearls in the world was the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar, all situated in the Orient.

4) The fact that these were the same regions where some of the earliest human civilizations began, such as Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilization and the ancient Egyptian civilization.

5) Some of the earliest archaeological evidences of the use of pearls originate in this region, such as the evidence of burying people with a pierced pearl in their right hand unearthed from the Persian Gulf region, believed to be more than 6,000 years old (4,000 B.C.).

6) The most ancient reference to pearls comes from China, also in the Orient, in one of the oldest books originating from China

Pearls were associated with all great religions that originated in the East and were mentioned in their scriptures

Having originated in the Orient, pearls naturally became associated with all the great religions that originated in the East, such as ancient Chinese religion, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and came to be mentioned in the scriptures of these religions.

Reference to pearls in the ancient sacred Hindu texts and literature dating from 1,700 B.C. (3,700 B.P.) to 400-500 A.D. (1,600-1,500 B.P)

The oldest sacred books of the Hindus known as the “Vedas,” written in Sanskrit, contain many references to pearls. The “Rigveda”  the oldest of the “Vedas” originating in northwestern India 1,700-1,100 B.C. (3,700-3,300 B.P.) uses the word “krisana” in many verses, which is generally translated as signifying pearls. The “Atharvaveda” written around 1200-1,000 B.C. (3,200-3,000 B.P.) refers to an amulet made of pearls, and used as a talisman. References to pearls are also found in the two great epics of ancient India, the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic ascribed to the Hindu sage Valmiki, probably originating in the 5th-century B.C (2,500 B.P.); and the Mahabaratha, the Sanskrit philosophical/historic epic of the 4th-century B.C. (2,400 B.P.) attributed to Vyasa. Hindu Literature associates the pearl with Krishna, the 8th-incarnation of Vishnu, the most popular God of Hindu worship, who is believed to have retrieved pearls from the depths of the sea to adorn his daughter on the day of her wedding. The renowned classical Sanskrit writer, of the 4th or 5th century A.D. widely regarded as the greatest poet and dramatist in the Sanskrit Language, commonly known as the Hindu Shakespeare but preceded William Shakespeare by 12 centuries, makes frequent reference to pearls in his works, which he called “muktha” meaning “pure.”

The oldest reference to pearls (freshwater pearls) comes from ancient China 2,350 B.C. (4,350 B.P.)

The most ancient reference to pearls comes from ancient China. In one of the oldest of books published in China, known as Sho King (Chuang Tzu) dating from 2,350 B.C. (4,350 B.P.) mention is made of a pearl from the River Huai, the natural boundary between north China and south China, being given as a tribute to Emperor Yu in 2206 B.C. (4,206 B.P.), and a string of near-spherical pearls from the province of King Kau also given as tribute. The book also mentions of pearls in tax records and of pearl rewards after death. An interesting Confucian ode, “If in life you gave no alms, In death how do you deserve a pearl?” ismentioned in this book. The ode is an exhortation to give charity to the poor, so that you can be rewarded in life after death. The ancient Chinese dictionary, the Nh’ya, published in 1,000 B.C. (3,000 B.P.) refer to pearls as precious jewels found in the province of Shen-Si on the western frontier. China also gets the credit for the production of the first cultured pearls around the year 1,000 A.D. by inserting tiny lead Buddhas into freshwater mollusks  which was coated with mother-of-pearl, producing pearl Buddhas in a period of 1-2 years. Such pearl-coated Buddhas had special spiritual significance for the Chinese Buddhists.

Reference to pearls in the Talmud, the Jewish sacred text, Hebrew Literature and traditions

Reference to pearls in Rabbinical Literature

The Talmud, the sacred text of mainstream Judaism, make frequent references to pearls, as signifying something extraordinarily beautiful and very costly. Some examples of these references are :- “The coats which God had made for Adam and Eve were as beautiful as pearls”(Gen R xx 12); “The manna was as white as a pearl” (Yoma 75a); “A pearl that is worth thousands of zuzim” (Bava Batra 146a); “A pearl that has no price” (Yerushalami ix 12d); “The pearl is one of the things the purchase of which is not subject to the laws of Ona’ah, for the reason that the value of two matched pearls greatly exceeded the value of each one separately, (Bava Metzia iv 8, ib Gemara 58b).

One of the references, however, considers pearls to be inferior to precious stones (Ab. Zarah 8b). Pearls are compared to drops in one reference. “Oil remained on Aaron’s beard like two pearl-drops” (Hor 12a). This is an obvious reference to drop-shaped pearls like the ones used in pendant earrings. The term “pearl” is used metaphorically to denote any valuable thing, eg. a good slave (Kid. 18a), or a halakah, or any reasonable interpretation, (Hag. 3a and elsewhere). Sometimes it designates a prayer. eg. “Rab and Samuel instituted a pearl in Babylon” (Ber. 32b), referring to the prayer beginning “Wa-todi’enu.” The word “margalit” used in several passages (Yer.Kil.ix.32c, Yer.Ab,Zarah ii.41a), which word may denote “pearl” as well as precious stone. As a betrothal ring should be devoid of gems, there is a discussion concerning one containing a pearl, the opinion of most of the rabbis being that the betrothal in the case of which such a ring is used is binding (see Shulhan ‘Aruk, Eben ha-‘Ezer, 31, 2).

A Rabbinical story involving Patriarch Abraham that highlights the value placed on pearls by ancient Hebrews

A Rabbinical story in which Patriarch Abraham attempts to hide Sarah in a chest, so that foreign eyes might not behold her beauty, at the time they entered Egypt, serves to highlight the value placed on pearls by ancient Hebrews at that time. When they reached the point at which they were to pay custom dues, the officers requested Abraham to pay the dues on the goods carried by him, without caring to open the chest. When told that he was surely carrying clothes with him, Abraham acknowledged and said that he would pay the dues on them. When the officers questioned Abraham whether he carried gold, fine silk and pearls with him he acknowledged every one of them and agreed to pay tax on them. This aroused the suspicion of the custom officers, who ordered Abraham to open the chest, and as the story goes the chest was opened, and the land was illumined by the luster of Sarah’s beauty.

In the story above, the items about which the custom officers questioned Abraham, clothes, gold, fine silk and pearls, showed an increasing gradation in value, according to market values obtaining at that time. Pearls were the most valued of all items at that time, and was the last question posed to Abraham. The stunned custom officers were actually keen in finding out what Abraham carried inside the chest that was more valuable than pearls !

The use of the word “pearl” in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) known as the Old testament by the Christians is contentious

The Israelites were probably acquainted with pearls, but it is contentious whether the word pearl is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), referred to as the Old Testament by Christians. Some of the words mentioned in the Tanakh, that are argued by some to mean pearls are “peninim,” “ra’mot,” “netofot,” “shoham” and “gabish.”

“Peninim” and “ramot” are objects of great costliness, taken to mean pearls. “Peninim” as appearing in Lam.iv.7 is taken by some authorities to indicate objects whose color is red, probably red pearls. However, others consider the two words actually refer to red corals or red rubies. The word “Netifot” mentioned in Judges.viii.26 and Isa.iii.19 may not mean pearls, but is still used in Esth.i.6, where it is some versions are translated as pearls, because the corresponding Arabic word denotes pearls. In Job.xxviii.18 the value of wisdom is compared with the value of “gabish.” Some authorities believe the word “gabish” refers to pearls, while others think it refers to rock crystal. The word “shoham” stones in Gen.ii.12 is also believed to indicate pearls.

Reference to pearls in the Christian Bible (The New Testament)

Unlike in the Old Testament, in the New Testament there are many clear references to pearls, that showed the great estimation in which they were held. There are eight references to pearls in the New Testament of the Bible :- Matthew – 2 references, Revelation – 4 references, 1 Timothy – 1 reference and Job – 1 reference.

1) Matthew 7:6 (King James Version)6Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

2) Matthew 13:45-46 (King James Version)45Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:

 46Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

3) Revelation 17:4 (King James Version)

 4 The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication4) Revelation 18:12  (King James Version)12 merchandise of gold and silver, precious stones and pearls, fine linen and purple, silk and scarlet, every kind of citron wood, every kind of object of ivory, every kind of object of most precious wood, bronze, iron, and marble.5) Revelation 18:16 (King James Version)16 and saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city that was clothed in fine linen, purple, and scarlet, and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls!

6) Revelation 21:21 (King James Version)

 21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.

7) 1 Timothy 2:9 (King James Version)9 in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing.8) Job 28:18 (King James Version)

18 No mention shall be made of coral, or of pearls: for the price of wisdom is above rubies.   

References to pearls in the Qur’an, the sacred text of the followers of Islam

There are six references to pearls in the Qur’an, the sacred text of Muslims all over the world, which they believe was revealed to the prophet Muhammad by God almighty himself through the medium of archangel Jibreel (Gabriel).

Surah 22 – Al Hajj, The Pilgrimage. Verse : 23

Allah will admit those who believe and work righteous deeds, to gardens beneath which rivers flow: they shall be adorned therein with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk.

Surah 35 – Fatir, The Angels. Verse : 33

Gardens of eternity will they enter: therein will they be adorned with bracelets of gold and pearls; and their garments there will be of silk.

Surah 52 – At Tur, The Mount. Verses : 17- 24

[17] As to the righteous, they will be in gardens, and in happiness,-
[18] Enjoying the (bliss) which their lord hath bestowed on them, and their lord shall deliver them from the penalty of the fire.
[19] (To them will be said 🙂 “Eat and drink ye, with profit and health, because of your (good) deeds.”
[20] They will recline (with ease) on thrones (of dignity) arranged in ranks; and we shall join them to companions, with beautiful big and lustrous eyes.
[21] And those who believe and whose families follow them in faith,- to them shall we join their families: nor shall we deprive them (of the fruit) of aught of their works: (yet) is each individual in pledge for his deeds.
[22] And we shall bestow on them, of fruit and meat, anything they shall desire.
[23] They shall there exchange, one with another, a (loving) cup free of frivolity, free of all taint of ill.
[24] Round about them will serve, (devoted) to them, young male servants (handsome) as pearls well-guarded.

Surah 55 – Ar Rahman, The Beneficent The Merciful. Verse : 19- 22

[19] He has let free the two bodies of flowing water (salt and fresh), meeting together:
[20] Between them is a barrier which they do not transgress:
[21] Then which of the favors of your lord will ye deny?
[22] Out of them come pearls and coral:

Surah 56 – Al Waqi’ah, The Inevitable Event. Verse : 11-24

[11] Those will be those nearest to Allah:
[12] In gardens of bliss (delight):
[13] A number of people from those of old,
[14] And a few from those of later times.
[15] (They will be) on thrones encrusted (with gold and precious stones),
[16] Reclining on them, facing each other.
[17] Round about them will (serve) youths of perpetual (freshness),
[18] With goblets, (shining) beakers, and cups (filled) out of clear-flowing fountains:
[19] No after-ache will they receive therefrom, nor will they suffer intoxication:
[20] And with fruits, any that they may select:
[21] and the flesh of fowls, any that they may desire.
[22] And (there will be) companions with beautiful, big, and lustrous eyes,
[23] Like unto pearls well-guarded.

[24] a reward for the deeds of their past (life).

Surah 76 – Al Insan, Man. Verse : 10-22

[10] “We only fear a day of distressful wrath from the side of our lord.”
[11] But Allah will deliver them from the evil of that day, and will shed over them a light of beauty and (blissful) joy.
[12] And because they were patient and constant, he will reward them with a garden and (garments of) silk.
[13] Reclining in the (garden) on raised thrones, they will see there neither the sun’s (excessive heat) nor (the moon’s) excessive cold.
[14] And the shades of the (garden) will come low over them, and the bunches (of fruit), there, will hang low in humility.
[15] And amongst them will be passed round vessels of silver and goblets of crystal,
[16] Crystal-clear, made of silver: they will determine the measure thereof (according to their wishes).
[17] And they will be given to drink there of a cup (of wine) mixed with zanjabil,-
[18] A fountain there, called salsabil.
[19] And round about them will (serve) youths of perpetual (freshness): if thou seest them, thou wouldst think them scattered pearls.
[20] And when thou lookest, it is there thou wilt see a bliss and a realm magnificent.
[21] Upon them will be green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade, and they will be adorned with bracelets of silver; and their lord will give to them to drink of a wine pure and holy.
[22] “Verily this is a reward for you, and your endeavor is accepted and recognized.”

The discovery and appreciation of pearls began in the regions surrounding the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar, which coincidentally was the same regions where some of the earliest human civilizations began

Pearls were undoubtedly first discovered and appreciated in the East or the Orient, but where exactly in the Orient were they first discovered or, were they discovered and came to be appreciated in more than one place independent of one another possibly at different times or periods? The answer to this difficult question has to be sought by identifying the most ancient sources of pearls in the world, and obviously the first people who would have discovered and learnt to appreciate pearls were the people living along the shoreline of these sources. The most ancient sources of pearls in the world are believed to be the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka. Pre-historic people living in these regions were probably the first to stumble upon the first pearls known to mankind, obviously during their quest for food. The fact that these were the same regions where some of the earliest human civilizations began, seem to consolidate the view that the discovery and appreciation of pearls also began in these regions. However, it may be difficult to pinpoint an exact region where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first began. It was quite possible that such discovery and appreciation began in the Persian Gulf/Red Sea region (the Middle East) and the Gulf of Mannar region (India and Sri Lanka), simultaneously or at different times independent of one another, just as much as the discovery and appreciation of pearls in the New World (the Americas and the Caribbean) had taken place independently of the Old World discoveries, long before Columbus discovered America. This webpage examines the archaeological and other evidences available that might establish the Persian Gulf/Red Sea region as the possible region where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first began. Evidences available to support the Gulf of Mannar region as another possible region where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first began, are considered separately on a different webpage dedicated for this purpose.

Hub of the international pearl trade in ancient times,persian gulf,red sea and gulf of mexico

An assessment of the Persian Gulf / Red Sea region as a possible area where the discovery and appreciation of pearls first began

1) The Persian Gulf Region

Archaeological evidence of the ancient use of pearls are scarce due to the organic nature of pearls that could not withstand the ravages of burial for long periods of time

The Persian Gulf/Red Sea region is believed to be the home of mankind’s first civilization, the Sumerian civilization that arose on the banks of the rivers of Euphrates and Tigris in Mesopotamia, in the period 5,900 B.C – 2,350 B.C. popularly known as the “Cradle of Human Civilization.” The Sumerian empires were followed by the Akkadian (2,350 B.C.-2,193 B.C.), Babylonian (2,004-1,600 B.C.) and Assyrian empires (2000-1800 B.C. and 1600-1200 B.C.). Some of the other ancient civilizations of this region were the Ancient Egyptian Civilization (3,200-1,000 B.C.), Ancient Iranian – Elamite Civilization (3,200-539 B.C.), and the Ancient Anatolian Civilization (2,500-700 B.C.). Archaeological evidence from this region such as jewelry found inside sarcophagi, ancient sculptures, coins etc point to the ancient use of pearls as ornaments in this region. Such evidences are however scarce given the organic origin of pearls, that could not withstand the ravages caused by burial for long periods of time.

The oldest piece of pearl jewelry on record from the Persian Gulf region is the 2,500-3,000 year-old (1,000-500 B.C.) Susa pearl necklace from the late Elamite period or the early Archemenid period of ancient Iran

In fact, the oldest piece of pearl jewelry on record is from the Persian Gulf region; a  2,500-3,000 year-old pearl necklace, made up of a triple row of 216  fairly well preserved pearls either from the late Elamite civilization or the Archemenid period that followed, dating back approximately to the 9th to 6th-century B.C. discovered in 1901 by archaeologist J. Morgan, in Susa, the capital of Elam, that was situated in the southwest of modern day Iran, in the province of Khuzestan, inside a bronze sarcophagus, belonging to a mummified body. This pearl necklace is a prominent exhibit in the Persian Gallery of the Louvre Museum in Paris. This is a significant archaeological discovery that shows the knowledge of pearls and their appreciation was widespread among the ancient people of Iran. More archeological evidence of the widespread use of pearls in ancient Iran would have been eliminated, as pearls being organic gems would not have withstood long periods of burial extending for thousands of years, unless they were protected in the secluded environment of a sarcophagus. However, even in the relative safety of a sarcophagus some of the pearls were in an advanced state of deterioration and just crumbled on contact reducing the number of pearls from the original estimated 400 to 500  to a mere 216.

Triple-row pearl and gold Susa necklace, presently displayed in the Persian Gallery of the Louvre

Earliest evidence from the Persian Gulf region, 6,000 years old (4,000 years B.C.), show that ancient people of this region were buried with a pierced pearl in their right hands

Additional evidence for the popularity of pearls in ancient Persia comes from sculptures, coins and gem portraits of Persian Queens that show them wearing pearl ear-pendants. One of the earliest evidences of the usage of pearls, also comes from the Persian Gulf region, where archaeologists have found, that almost 6,000 years ago (4,000 years B.C.) people were buried with a pierced pearl in their right hands. Thus all evidences available point towards the Persian Gulf region as one of the first to have discovered pearls and appreciated their beauty and value.

Other archaeological evidences that show the antiquity of the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf

Evidence from a cuneiform inscription on a broken obelisk from Nineveh in ancient Assyria, probably from the neo-Assyrian period from 911-612 B.C.

A cuneiform inscription on a broken obelisk probably erected by the king of Nineveh, the 3rd capital city of the Assyrian empire (presently situated just outside Mosul in Iraq, on the east bank of the River Tigris) during the neo-Assyrian period from 911-612 B.C. was deciphered by the famous Assyriologist  Professor Jules Oppert. His translation of this inscription reads as follows :-

In the sea of the changeable winds,                                              his merchants fished for pearls,                                                     In the sea where the North Star culminates,                               they fished for yellow amber.

The reference to “the sea of the changeable winds” in this inscription,, is a reference to the Persian Gulf, and provides evidence for the antiquity of the pearl fisheries carried out in it, dating back to around 900-600 B.C.

Sumerian Cuneiform Inscription

Sumerian Cuneiform Inscription

Evidence from another cuneiform inscription dated around 2,000 B.C. from Ur of the Chaldees (Ur Kadim), the birth place of Abraham,

Another ancient cuneiform tablet dated around 2,000 B.C. was found at Ur of the Chaldees, believed to be the birthplace of Patriarch Abraham. The inscription on this tablet, refers to a parcel of “fish eyes” from Dilmun, which some scholars have interpreted to mean pearls from Bahrain Island, that was sent to Babylon, the capital city of the ancient Babylonian empire (from around 2,000 B.C to 539 B.C.), which is today in present day Iraq.

Cuneiform Inscription, Nimrud- Mesopotamia

Cuneiform Inscription, Nimrud- Mesopotamia

© Iraq Museum

Evidence from another cuneiform inscription on an obelisk from Nineveh that originated during the reign of Shalmenasar I (Temenbar) or Shalmenasar III, dating back from 1300-800 B.C.

A second cuneiform inscription on an obelisk from Nineveh, ascribed to the king Shalmanesar III (Temenbar II), (858-824 B.C.), who expanded the Assyrian empire further by capturing Babylon and Persia, after his father King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) expanded it southwards up to the Mediterranen Sea, and also built a palace at Nimrud, that was twice the size of his father’s palace, and covered an area of about 12 acres with 200 rooms, was deciphered by Sir Henry Rawlinson, which according to him states that, “In the ninth year of his reign king Temenbar received as tribute of the king of Chaldees, gold, silver, gems and pearls.” This obelisk provides us with evidence of the use of pearls in Assyria around 800 B.C. However, if the obelisk is from the period of Shalmenasar I, (Temenbar I) (1273-1244 B.C.) the founder of the Nimrud city in the 13th-century B.C. which subsequently went into ruins and was rebuilt only in 880 B.C. by Ashurnasirpal II, our evidence of the use of pearls in ancient Assyria goes back 500 years to around 1300 B.C. Thus, evidence provided by this obelisk for the use of pearls dates back from 1300-800 B.C.

Evidence provided by foreign writings on the antiquity of the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf

The Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote about the sources of pearls in 315 B.C. which included the “Sinus Persicus” the Persian Gulf

The Greek philosopher Theophrastus, pupil and successor of Aristotle in the Peripatetic school who lived in the period 371-287 B.C. and whose interests apart from philosophy that included grammar, language, logic, ethics and metaphysics, also included medieval science such as biology and physics, wrote in 315 B.C. that pearls came from the waters off the coast of India, and certain islands in the Red Sea and in the Sinus Persicus (Persian Gulf).

Greek Philosopher Theophrastus

Greek Philosopher Theophrastus

Photo above,C.C

Megasthenes, the Greek geographer and writer mentions about the Persian Gulf pearl fisheries in his writings.

Megasthenes, the Greek geographer and writer, who was born in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and lived during the period 350-290 B.C. accompanied Alexander’s general Seleucus Nicator in his Asiatic conquests, and was later appointed as ambassador to the court of Sandrocottus (Chandragupta Maurya) in Pataliputra, India. He entered India through the land of the five rivers, the Punjab, and proceeded by road to Pataliputra. During his assignment in India he visited many regions of India, including Madurai, the capital of the Pandya kingdom. While in southern India, he also learnt about the neighboring island of Sri Lanka which he called “Taprobane,” and its valuable resources, such as pearls and a variety of gemstones. Subsequently he wrote his famous work “Indica” in which he wrote that Taprobane was an important source of large pearls. Megasthenes in his works also wrote about the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf.

Androsthenes and Nearchus explore the eastern Arabian coast in the Persian Gulf in the 4th-century B.C. and report about the pearling islands of Tylos (Bahrain) and the island of Stoidis, near the Straits of Hormuz

Androsthenes of Thasos, another 4th-century B.C. geographer and explorer, also participated in the expeditions of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) in Asia. Alexander sent Androsthenes down the Eupharates to explore the Arabian coast, which he did with Nearchus, in a triacontor, sailing farther than Archias of Pella. Previously Archias, who served as trierarch (commander of trireme-galley used as warship) under admiral Nearchus, was dispatched down the Eupharates on the same mission, with a galley of 30 oars. He sailed down the Euphrates, entered the Persian Gulf and moved down the eastern Arabian coast, and eventually reached the Island of Tylos (Bahrain).  Archais reported that the Island of Tylos was “about a day and a night’s sail from the mouth of the Euphrates. Androsthenes and Nearchus reached the Island of Tylos, and reported about the pearl fishery centered around this island. They then moved further downwards along the eastern Arabian coast and discovered another pearling island, a little to the west of the Straits of Hormuz, which Pliny subsequently named the Island of Stoidis.

Pliny refers to the pearl fisheries at Tylos (Bahrain) and Catifa (El Katiff) in his 1st-century A.D. book, “Historalis Naturalis.”

During the period of Pliny, the Elder, the pearl fisheries of Tylos in the Persian Gulf, as well as the Ceylon pearl fishery were well known for the numerous pearls they produced. Pliny, the Roman historian wrote in the first-century A.D. in his book the “Historalis Naturalis” (Book IX, chapter 35), “But the most perfect and exquisite pearls of all other be they that are gotten about Arabia within the Persian Gulf. He also states in Book VI Chapter 25) that Catifa (El Katiff) on the Arabian coast opposite Bahrain, was the center of an important pearl fishery.

Pliny the elder- Roman historian

Pliny the elder- Roman historian

Isidore of Charax in the first-century A.D. refers to the pearl fishery around the Island of Tylos

Isidorus Characenus, commonly known as Isidore of Charax, a Greek Geographer, who lived in the 1st-century A.D. like Pliny, wrote, “But, Tylos was the island in the Persian Gulf where pearls are found in abundance.” Isidorus was born in Charax Spasinu, situated at the head of the Gulf, that was first known as Alexandria, and then Antiochia. Thus anything Isidorus wrote about the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf was information he had gathered from personal knowledge. According to him, “The Island of Tylos, was surrounded by bamboo rafts from which the natives dive in 20 fathoms of water and bring up bivalves.” Isidore’s best know work is Mansiones Parthicae (Parthian Stations), a description of the overland trade route from Antioch, his birthplace and place of residence, to India, through the Parthian empire, which was located on the silk trade route between the Roman empire in the Mediterranean basin and Han dynasty China. Isidore gives details of caravan stations along the route maintained by the Parthian (Arsacid) government.

Ptolemy on the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf in the 1st-2nd century A.D.

Ptolemy, the 1st-century / 2nd-century A.D. Alexandrian-Roman mathematician, astronomer and geographer, wrote several scientific treatises on astronomy, mathematics and geography in the Greek language, of which his famous treatise “Geographia” was a thorough discussion of the geographic knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. Ptolemy referred to the Island of Tylos (Bahrain) in the Persian Gulf, around which a thriving pearl fishery existed from time immemorial. He also wrote about the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, both on the South Indian side and the Sri Lankan side.



The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea makes mention of the Persian Gulf pearl fisheries in the 1st-2nd century A.D. but not so extensively as the Gulf of Mannar pearl fisheries

The Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus  of the Erythrian Sea), was written by an unknown Alexandrian-Greek author, in the second half of the 1st-century A.D (approximately 60 A.D.) and was a first-hand account of the sea routes from the Roman-Egyptian ports of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa to the ports on the eastern coast of Africa, up to Raphta (Tanzania); to the Indian sub-continent and the ports along its western and eastern coast up to the Ganges delta; and the overland route to China from the port of Barygaza (Bharuch or Broach in Gujarat State in the Gulf of Khambat) in northwest India, during that period. The route to the east coast of India, is through the Gulf of Mannar, between India and Sri Lanka. Hence, the extensive account of the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar, particularly on the Indian side of the Gulf, but the pearl fishery of Epidorus (Mannar Island) on the Sri Lankan side of the Gulf is also mentioned. The Sea routes described in the Periplus, does not cover the Persian Gulf. Hence, the absence of a detailed account of the pearl fishery of the Persian Gulf in the Periplus. Yet, a passing reference is made to the Persian Gulf Pearl fishery, by mentioning a place not far beyond the mouth of the Persian Gulf, where there are many pearl fisheries.

Pompei the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus)

Pompei the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus)

Photo above,C.C

Large quantities of pearls and pearl-encrusted crowns and other items taken as spoils-of-war by Pompey in the 1st-century B.C. during his campaigns in the east, provides indirect evidence for the prolific nature of the pearl fishery in the Persian Gulf at that time

Gnaeus Pompeius magnus (Pompey the Great), who lived during the period, 106 B.C to 48 B.C. was a military and political leader of the late Roman republic, who distinguished himself in several military campaigns on behalf of the republic, and eventually shared power in the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar, who forged a close relationship with him by giving his daughter Julia in marriage to him. After his military success in Sicily and Africa, that ensured the grain supplies of Rome, and the successful campaign against piracy in the Mediterranean Sea, Pompey was appointed as the commander of the Roman armies in the East. He distinguished himself again in the campaigns in the East in 64-63 B.C., against Mithridates VI of Pontus, and the rulers of Syria and Phoenicia, converting them into Roman provinces. He also subdued Armenia that surrendered without a fight, and thus the Roman empire extended to over 200 miles east of the upper Euphrates. In all these campaigns, and especially in the wealthy kingdom of Pontus in northeast Asia Minor, Pompey’s armies took large quantities of spoils-of-war, that were taken to Rome, and ostentatiously displayed while being taken in procession, during Pompey’s triumphal entry into Rome. Among the treasures taken from Pontus, included 33 crowns encrusted with pearls, a grotto or shrine dedicated to the muses and decorated with pearls, and a large portrait of Pompey himself rendered in pearls. The enormous quantities of pearls taken by Pompey in his campaigns in the East, from the kingdom of Pontus, Syria – the last remnant of the Seleucid empire, and Phoenicia, all originated undoubtedly in the Persian Gulf, the most prolific source of pearls in the region at that time.

Image of Khusrau II, King of Persia on a coin

Image of Khusrau II, King of Persia on a coin

The largest bejeweled carpet ever produced incorporating pearls and colored stones, known as the “winter carpet” was made in Persia (Iran) during the period of rule of Khusrau II between 590 and 628 A.D. (6th and 7th century A.D.) and provides indirect evidence for the prolific nature of the pearl fishery of the Persian Gulf during this period.

Another instance of appreciation of pearls comes from Iran (Persia) during the Sassanid period between the 3rd and 7th centuries A.D. This was the incorporation of pearls, together with other colored gemstones such as sapphires, emeralds, rubies, spinels, turquoise etc. as well as  gold and silver threads in bejeweled carpets, to produce high quality artistic creations, adopting naturalistic themes, such as floral, foliage and animal motifs. During the period of rule of the Sassanian king Khusrau II, between 590 and 628 A.D. the throne room in his palace at Ctesiphon was said to have been covered with carpets made of gold woven fabrics, and pearls embroidered on them. Khusrau II also gets the credit for producing the largest carpet ever made in the history of mankind, with dimensions of 140 meters x 27 m (450 ft X 90 ft), that covered the main audience hall of Sassanian Imperial Ctesiphon. This extraordinarily large carpet, that came to be known as the “winter carpet” or the “spring carpet” was made of wool, silk, gold and silver, and elaborately decorated with a multitude of colored gemstones and pearls. The motifs incorporated in the carpet were spring time scenes, such as birds in flight, flowers in full bloom, ripe fruits and broad green meadows, believed to have been designed of solid emeralds. It is said that King Khusrau II, strolled along this seemingly endless bejeweled carpet during the winter to savor its many spring time scenes. Hence the name “winter carpet.”

The Region Around the Red Sea

Ancient Egyptians used mother-of-pearl shells from the Red Sea for ornamentation during the pre-dynastic period 5,200 years ago (3,200 B.C.), but first evidence for such use comes from the 3rd to 6th dynasty approximately 4,500 years ago (2,500 B.C.)

The Red Sea was another ancient source of pearls, and one of the early human civilizations that arose closer to this sea, in the Nile river valley, was the ancient Egyptian civilization that lasted from around 3,200 B.C., with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first Pharaoh, Narmer to 1,078 B.C., the year of death of pharaoh Ramses XI, after which Egypt came under the control of a succession of foreign powers, such as the Libyans, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. The period before 3,200 B.C. is known as the pre-dynastic period, and ancient Egyptians of this period no doubt came to value mother-of-pearl sourced from the Red Sea, which they incorporated in their ornaments. However, the first evidence for the use of mother-of-pearl shells in ornaments comes from the period of the Old Kingdom of Egypt,  extending from the 3rd dynasty to the sixth dynasty, that lasted from 2,686 B.C. to 2,181 B.C. This was also the period during which the Great  Sphinx of Tanis, with a body of a lion and the head of a king, is believed to have been created.

Mother-of-Pearl cartouches and beads discovered from the graves of the pharaohs of the 12th-dynasty dating back approximately 2,000 – 1,800 years B.C. (4,000 – 3,800 years ago).

Ancient Egyptians used mother-of-pearl shells to make cartouches and beads. Beads were strung together as necklaces and cartouches were hung as pendants from these necklaces. A cartouche is an oval or oblong figure in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, carved out or inscribed in materials such as gemstones, mother-of-pearl shells, and other materials such as plastered walls and smoothened rock surfaces, that incorporates characters expressing the names and epithets of royal and divine personages. Cartouches placed in tombs had been very useful to archaeologists for dating the tomb and its contents. Mother-of-pearl shell cartouches were found in the pan-bearing graves of the pharaohs of the twelfth dynasty of Egypt (1,991 B.C. to 1802 B.C.)  among the ruins of the ancient Thebes in Luxor. These shell cartouches were circular or oblong in shape, and strung on chains, with beads of carnelian, pottery and other materials.

Actual pearls were not popular in ornamentation in ancient Egypt prior to the 6th-century B.C. Evidence for the use of pearls in jewelry recovered from the tombs belonging to the period prior to the 6th-century B.C. is very scarce

However, apart from mother-of-pearl shells,  evidences of the use of actual pearls in ornamentation in ancient Egypt are very rare. According to representations of ancient Egyptian costumes,  it appears that pearls were not employed in their decoration. Even the jewelry items found in the tombs, such as necklaces, earrings, etc, made of gold are set only with crystal gems, and contain the remains of only few pearls.

Cambyses II

Evidence for the extensive use of pearls in ancient Egypt come only after 525 B.C. following the conquest of Egypt by Persia, suggesting that ancient Egyptians learnt to appreciate the beauty and value of pearls only from the Persians

Evidence for the extensive use of pearls in ancient Egypt come only after the 6th-century B.C. after the conquest of Egypt by Persia. Egypt was ruled by Persia from 525 B.C., following the conquest by Cambyses II, until 332 B.C. when Alexander the Great captured Egypt from the last Persian ruler Mazaces. Thus, it appears that the Egyptians learnt to appreciate the beauty and value of pearls only after the nearly 200 year rule by the Persian kings, who attached a premium value to these creations of nature. During this period the Persian kings would have undoubtedly exploited to the maximum the pearl oyster resources of the Red Sea.

Ptolemy I

Ptolemy I

Alexander the great

Alexander the great

Photo:Ad Meskens

Egypt under Greek rule for 300 years continue to use pearls extensively in their brilliant courts in Alexandria.

The Greek rule of Egypt lasted from 332 B.C. until 30 B.C.  Alexander’s successors who ruled Egypt during this period from their new Capital in Alexandria, were known as the Ptolemies, a dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, a Macedonian Greek General of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies from whom the Romans captured Egypt in 30 B.C. The city of Alexandria showcased the power and prestige of Greek rule, and was converted to a seat of learning and culture, centered around its famous library of Alexandria.  The court at Alexandria at the height of its power had an abundance of pearls, that were used in the decoration of all court regalia.

Bust of Cleopatra of Egypt

Bust of Cleopatra of Egypt

Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies of Egypt, who became the undisputed ruler of Egypt with the help of Julius Caesar in 47 B.C. married him the same year

Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies of Egypt who took the title of “Pharaohs” and a descendant of one of Alexander the  Great’s generals. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Auletes. Cleopatra at first ruled Egypt jointly with her father Ptolemy XII Auletes. Later, after her father’s death she shared power with her brothers Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. A struggle for power ensued between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII, resulting in the outbreak of civil war between troops loyal to both contenders. Julius Caesar, the mighty Roman warrior and political leader, reached Alexandria around this time in pursue of his rival Pompey, who was eventually killed by a Roman officer serving in the court of Ptolemy XIII. Caesar, who fell in love with Cleopatra, sided with her in the civil war, and after defeating Ptolemy XIII’s forces in the “Battle of the Nile” in 47 B.C. installed Cleopatra as the undisputed ruler of Egypt. Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra lasted 14 years, and resulted in the birth of a son, Caesarion.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

After Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. Cleopatra married Caesar’s friend Mark Antony, but the two lovers committed suicide after their defeat at the hands of Octavius in the civil war of 30 B.C.

After Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. the triumvirate that succeeded him consisted of Mark Antony, his close confidante and associate, Caesar Octavius, Julius Caesar’s designated successor and grandnephew and Lepidus, Caesar’s loyal cavalry commander. In the civil war that followed Mark Antony and Octavius dealt a crushing blow on the forces of Brutus and Cassius, the main plotters of Caesar’s assassination. Mark Antony later married Caesar’s former lover Cleopatra, and the union produced three children, the twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and another son Ptolemy Philadelphus. By marrying Cleopatra, Mark Antony intended to use fabulously wealthy Egypt, as a base to fight Octavius and dominate Rome. This resulted in another civil war, between Octavius on one side and Mark Antony and Cleopatra on the other side. The forces of Octavius defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, that led to the suicide of both Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C. The battle signified the end of the Roman republic and the ascendancy of Octavius as the first Roman Emperor who took the name Augustus Caesar.

Sculpture of Mark Antony

Sculpture of Mark Antony

The story of Cleopatra’s challenge to Mark Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on a dinner, as reported by Pliny the Elder, the Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher

This is one of the well known and often repeated episodes in the life of Mark Antony and Cleopatra who spent together 14 years of happy married life, and related by Pliny around 100 years after it transpired. As the story goes, at one of the lavish dinners Cleopatra shared with Mark Antony, she is reported to have playfully bet Mark Antony, that she could spend 10 million sesterces on just one dinner. Mark Antony accepted the bet, and the following night, to his amazement, as usual she had a conventional meal served, about which there was nothing special. Soon Cleopatra became the target of ridicule by Mark Antony who had accepted her challenge. Disregarding Mark Antony’s  light-hearted and playful torments, the Queen ordered her second course – just a cup of strong vinegar. As Mark Antony watched in total disbelief, Cleopatra removed one of her priceless pearl earrings and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl in the earring dissolved in the vinegar, and soon afterwards the Queen drank the resulting solution without any hesitation. Mark Antony immediately conceded victory to his beloved queen, knowing very well that the pearl that was dissolved in the vinegar cost a fortune. Around this time pearls were priced more than any other crystal gemstone and gold.

The episode reveals important facts about the appreciation of pearls in Egypt in the first-century B.C. in spite of its lack of credibility

The main component of pearls is aragonite, a crystalline form of calcium carbonate, that can dissolve slowly in Vinegar which is dilute acetic acid. However, if the pearl is first crushed before adding vinegar, we can expect a faster reaction to take place. The story as related by Pliny has received general acceptance, despite the fact that a whole pearl will not dissolve easily in vinegar, and its difficult to imagine how Cleopatra was able to gulp a glass full of the sour acidic fluid at just one go, when even palatable pickles made out of vinegar are only consumed sparingly as an appetizer !!! However, in spite of the lack of credibility of the episode as related by Pliny, the episode itself reveals an important fact about the appreciation of the value of pearls in Egypt at that time, in the first-century B.C. The lavish use of pearls in the courts of the Ptolemies in Alexandria is a well-known fact, and Queen Cleopatra was no exception.

Was the Persian Gulf region the most probable region where pearls came to be first discovered and appreciated ?

Archaeological discoveries and cuneiform inscriptions  provide valuable evidence to show the antiquity of the Persian Gulf fisheries, and the region as one of the oldest, where the discovery and appreciation of pearls probably started.

Thus, out of the ancient civilizations of the Persian Gulf region and the region surrounding the Red Sea, two of the most ancient sources of pearls in the world, the use and appreciation of pearls by pre-historic peoples from the Persian Gulf region, seem to be well authenticated by archaeological evidence dating back to around 6,000 years (6 millennia) and written evidence in the form of cuneiform inscriptions on obelisks dating back to 2,000-1,000 years B.C. from ancient Babylon and Assyria. The ancient archaeological evidence and the evidence from inscriptions, are subsequently supplemented by written evidence originating from the writings of ancient Greek and Roman writers, travelers and geographers from the 4th-century B.C. to 2nd-century A.D., such as Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.), Megasthenes (350-290 B.C), Androsthenes (300-400 B.C.), Nearchus (360-300 B.C.), Pliny (23-79 A.D.), Isidorus (1st-century B.C./1st-century A.D.), Ptolemy (90-168 A.D.) and the unknown Alexandrian-Greek author (1st-century A.D.) of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea. All these ancient writers refer to the Persian Gulf pearl fisheries as the most ancient in the world, that had existed from time immemorial.

The use and appreciation of pearls spread to Egypt only after the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C.

The use and appreciation of pearls spread to the people living around the Red Sea region in ancient Egypt, only much later in the 6th-century B.C. after military conquest of the region by the Persians, who had a long tradition of using pearls, and attached great value to these organic gemstones perfected by nature. After, political power in Egypt, shifted from the Persians to the Greeks and later the Romans, the knowledge of the use and appreciation of pearls spread to the western nations, who placed great emphasis on this newly acquired knowledge. Pearls during this period were considered to be more valuable than gold, and the Greeks and Romans went all out to acquire them, sending their ships to the sources where they were found, such as the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar, or undertaking military expeditions to acquire them from nations that had large collections in their treasuries.

The Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia, were probably the first humans to discover and appreciate pearls

Thus, out of the two regions, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf region appears to be the most probable region where the first pearls were discovered and came to be appreciated. Ancient Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia (5,900 B.C – 2,350 B.C), the “cradle of human civilization” with a coastline on the Persian Gulf, were probably the first humans who discovered the pearls, and came to appreciate their beauty, and eventually use them as adornments.

History of the Persian Gulf pearl fisheries after the 7th-century A.D. to modern times is considered on a separate webpage

In the above article on the History of the discovery and appreciation of pearls, the history of the Persian Gulf pearl fishery has been considered only up to the 6th-7th century A.D., the period in which the world’s largest bejeweled carpet incorporating Persian Gulf pearls were produced by Khusrau II. The history of the Persian Gulf fisheries after the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th-century A.D. to modern tomes are considered in detail on a separate web-page.

You are welcome to discuss this post/related topics with Dr Shihaan and other experts from around the world in our FORUMS (

     Back to Famous Pearls

Related :-

1) Pearl of Kuwait

2) Sara Pearl/Tavernier Pearl/Shaista Khan Pearl

3) History of the Discovery and Appreciation of Pearls – Page 2.

References :-

1) The Book of the Pearl – Chapter 1, Pearls Amongst the Ancients – Kunz & Stevenson.

Chapter VI – The Pearl Fisheries of the Persian Gulf

2) Pearls – Jewish –

3) Talmud – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

4) Hebrew Bible – From Wikipedia, the free enctclopedia

5) Ancient Egypt – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

6) Julius Caesar – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

7) Cleopatra – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

8) Are Women Allowed to Use pearls – Bible vs Qur’an – By Prof. Dr, Ibrahim Khalil. Ain-Shams University. Cairo, Egypt.

9) Nimrud – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

10) The Assyrian King’s List, period of rule and highlights of achievements –

11) Megasthenes – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

12) Seleucus I Nicator – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

13) Periplus of the Erythrean Sea – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

15) Beyond Price – Pearls and Pearl Fishing : Origins to the Age of Discoveries – R.A. Donkin

16) The Pearl Book – The Definitive Buying Guide : How to Select, Buy, Care for and Enjoy Pearls – Antoinette Matlins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. By browsing this website, you agree to our use of cookies.