The Persians called them ‘children of light’ and believed they were the tears of the gods. The Chinese thought the moon gave them their power to glow. Throughout the ages, pearls have been shrouded in mystery and coveted by emperors, tsars, maharajas and queens.
In ancient times, the Greeks adorned statues and temples with them and wealthy Roman women wore their pearls at night, so they would be in their dreams. But perhaps history’s greatest pearl lover was England’s Queen Elizabeth I: the Virgin Queen. Pearls symbolised purity and she routinely wore seven ropes of them, some reaching to her knees. She had over 3000 pearl-encrusted dresses, 80 wigs set with pearls, multistrand bracelets and jeweltrimmed fans.
Meeting the world’s desire for pearls has often been difficult. In Roman times, pearl beds were almost fished to extinction and laws were introduced to curb demand. Between the 14th and 16th centuries, similar laws were passed in England, France, Germany and other countries to avert crippling trade imbalance due to so much gold going out of the country to buy pearls.
In the early 1900’s, over fishing, industrialisation and pollution affected the very existence of fine, naturally occurring pearls.
The pearl may have disappeared all together if not for the son of a noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimoto. Building on the work of two other men, he unlocked the secret of hand seeding or culturing pearls.
Great white pearls
Australian Pearling had its humble beginnings in the mid 1900s when shells off the northwest coast were collected for mother of pearl. Used for making pearl buttons, this industry was short-lived when World War II bought with it the invention of plastic and ready replacement. However, an enterprising group of Japanese saw potential in the remote, untamed area of Broome with its oversized oysters.
Together with a local pearling family, they introduced culturing techniques in the county’s first commercial pearl farm. When they launched their big, beautiful, lustrous pearls upon the market in the 1960s, they also set Australia on the road to becoming the largest producer of rare, white South Sea pearls.
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