From Ancient Egypt through to the modern day, natural pearls have been held in the highest regard and were worn as a treasured status symbol by the elite of society and royalty. In the Dark Ages they were used as a talisman to ensure safety during battle, and have been revered by many different religions. Pearls were seen as the ultimate display of wealth, coming from the deep seas of the mysterious orient.
Natural pearls are an organic gem formed inside live mollusc shells and come in all shapes and sizes. They are formed as the result of a natural irritant within the mollusc's mantle and as a defence, layers of iridescent nacre form over the top of it, creating a pearl. The major historic source for gathering natural pearls is the Persian Gulf. The majority of pearls found are not good enough quality to be used in jewellery, meaning a natural, spherical, sizeable, smooth, lustrous, white pearl with no blemishes is exceptionally rare. The difficulty in gathering pearls from their source is one of the main reasons natural pearls were so exclusive. All pearls occurred naturally up until the twentieth century.
In 1893, the Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi created the first cultured pearl. Cultured pearls are created by a person manually inserting an irritant into the mollusc's mantle. Cultured pearls can be farmed on a large scale and were invented to appeal to the mass market.
Natural pearls occur naturally, and are very rarely found today. The miracle of a beautiful pearl forming is somewhat less fascinating when they are cultured, and their inherent value changes accordingly. Their appeal lies in their iridescent sheen and lustre, their silky whiteness, and their rarity. Only one in a thousand natural pearls is spherical, white, lustrous and unblemished.
Highly desirable, natural pearl rings were especially popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.