Far before the beginning of our era, pearls were already used for personal adornment. From these earliest days up to around 1910, only natural pearls existed.
Throughout history, these natural pearls were collected from the mussels and oysters which were brought to the surface by pearl-divers. Being a pearl-diver meant having a life full of hard physical labour which all too often did not bring the wealth one might expect. Not even 1 out of every 1000 mussels and oysters yielded a pearl. And from these pearls, only a small percentage was of gem quality. Truly large and beautifully shaped natural pearls have always been very rare and therefore very precious.
The first pearl localities
The first most productive pearl-diving locations were the ocean waters surrounding Sri Lanka, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. But at the end of the 15th century, during his voyages, Columbus discovered a new oyster species which lived in the Caribbean ocean waters as well as in the oceans surrounding Central America. And this oyster could produce some of the largest and most beautiful marine pearls which were found up until then. As a result of this discovery, during the 16th and 17th century, these oysters were harvested on such a scale that the specie was brought right up to the brink of extinction.
Pearls were not only harvested from the oceans. Also in the forest streams of Scotland, Eastern Europe and the south of Germany pearls were found. Freshwater mussels could yield small pearls. Harvesting freshwater pearls was of course easier and less labour intensive than diving for marine pearls.
During the second half of the Dark Ages, freshwater pearls were often used in jewellery. Especially the German city of Bavaria was known for the use of freshwater pearls throughout the 13th century.
Pearls in modern days
Nowadays pearl-diving is only still done sporadically (mainly of the costs of Sri Lanka and Bahrain) and finding a natural pearl has become a rare event. Most natural pearls available on today’s market are pearls that have been found prior to 1930 and are (re)sold in auctions or by antique dealers. Good quality natural pearls are extremely rare, which of course shows in the prices they command.
Because of the scarcity of available natural pearls and the introduction (and the general acceptance) of cultured pearls around the beginning of the 20th century, it can now be assumed that when people speak about “pearls”, they refer to cultured pearls.