The main content of this page begins here.
Rare jewels loved by queens
In the famous story of Cleopatra and the pearl, Cleopatra dropped a pearl into a vessel of wine and swallowed it once it dissolved, with Marc Antony looking on. The pearl, which Cleopatra had worn as earrings, was valued at around $375,000 at the time, and would be worth an astronomical amount if converted into today's currency.
Marc Antony fell for Cleopatra, who was around 28 when they met in 41 BCE, upon seeing her nonchalantly swallow the pearl. He was so attracted to this daring queen that this event may have been the turning point leading to their eventual marriage.
Some say the vessel contained vinegar. Whether wine or vinegar, pearls are insoluble. Cleopatra essentially swallowed the pearl as a pill. For her, swallowing the pearl—which was seen as a drug for eternal youth and longevity—was possibly her way of showing the importance she placed on her life and prosperity. Then and now, people believe that pearls hold a mysterious, spiritual power.
Pure, innocent and eternal
A discussion on queens who loved pearls with a passion is not complete without mentioning Elizabeth I (1533–1603), who was said to enjoy wearing pearl bracelets on a regular basis and even adorned the borders of her fans with pearls. In the portrait painted by George Gower in 1588 the Queen seems to be buried in pearls. She wore hair ornaments bejeweled with pearls, along with a pearl necklace and earrings, but she also had countless pearls stitched into the creases of her garments.
Naturally, these pearls needed to be removed and reapplied when the garments were cleaned or revamped, so the Queen had many seamstresses attending her. Nowadays we would probably refer to this occupation as a pearl changer. Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Howard, once appeared in a stunning velvet garment studded in pearls. On seeing this, Queen Elizabeth is quoted as saying, “I should be wearing that dress.” One could go as far as to say she had a time-honored belief in pearls, an attachment inherited from her father, King Henry VIII (1491 –1547), who was also a believer in pearls.
As the self-proclaimed virgin queen, Queen Elizabeth also believed the pearl was a symbol of virginity. She considered the pearl—the crystallization of purity, innocence, and eternity—supreme. Queen Elizabeth doubtlessly believed that the more pearls she wore, the more her body and soul was purified.
A mystery bead from the sea
The liquid drops of tears that you have shed,
Shall come again, transform'd to orient pearl,
Advantaging their loan with interest
Of ten times double gain of happiness.
The pearl’s mystique can be traced back as far as the 15th century when Shakespeare, included the above verse in his historical drama, Richard III. How pearls formed was a mystery at the time, and the perfection of the pearl may have been seen as something magical that was too profound for human intellect.
The mystery surrounding pearls remains today in the 21st century. The pearl was once said to be one life in a thousand, because finding one pearl in one thousand opened oyster shells was considered lucky. However, this referred to a simple pearl. A large, beautiful pearl cannot be found in one thousand oyster shells, and finding one in ten thousand or even one hundred thousand shells is a blessing. The perfect pearl is the elite of the elite—more difficult to find than money in a sand dune.
The words coating and luster are used when referring to a pearl’s virtues, but much is still unknown of these terms and pearls, in general. When an oyster shell detects a foreign object, it wraps a nacreous layer around the object to protect itself; thus a pearl is born. This much is common knowledge. However, a beautiful pearl requires a splendid nacreous layer. This layer’s beauty depends on various factors, such as water quality and temperature, and the motion of the waves. Further influences can only be referred to as heaven’s blessings and the universe’s mysteries. One can only conclude that the sea off Toba in Ise Bay is heaven’s exquisite cradle.
Perfect, miraculous brilliance
In Somerset Maugham’s short story, A String of Beads, the tutor Miss Robinson sends an imitation necklace to a shop for repairs. The shop mistakenly returns a necklace of genuine pearls worth several million yen. The story continues as Miss Robinson’s life is temporarily transformed by wearing these genuine pearls. This story alone might convince readers that pearls hold a supernatural power.
The pearl necklaces featured in this installment are more magnificent than the necklace in Maugham’s story. A large drop pearl such as this, which is over 10.5 mm, is rare. Stringing perfect pearls with a uniform excellence into a necklace such as this is nothing less than a miracle. To lay eyes on such a stunning necklace makes me glad I have lived long enough to see it. I may never have the privilege of beholding a large-drop necklace as fine as this again.
Text / Shozo Izuishi (JQR) Photography / Satoru Naito