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History of Cultured Pearls – Part 1

form :GIA History of Cultured Pearls – Part 1

Before the development of cultured pearls, only natural pearls were available – and their value was astronomical.

“I’m going to have the most expensive dinner in history,” Cleopatra supposedly boasted to Marc Anthony. She then dissolved a large natural pearl in a goblet of wine and drank it. Then there was the Roman general, Vitellius (15 A.D.-69 A.D.), who sold a natural pearl from one of his mother’s earrings to cover the expenses of a military campaign.

Natural pearls were so rare that only royalty and the supremely wealthy could afford them. To find these treasures of the sea, divers would swim to depths of up to 65 feet, trawl the ocean floor for mollusks, and take them to nearby ships for sorting – a laborious process that was rarely successful and often dangerous.

pearl pendant

Bouvler pearl pendant. Courtesy of Vartanian & Sons.

As early as the 13th century, enterprising Chinese pearl farmers began cultivating blister pearls in freshwater mussels. For interesting shapes, the farmers would sometimes use small molds that were  shaped like a Buddha. These early cultured blister pearls were flat and hollow and many centuries would pass before the first spherical cultured pearls were produced.

Natural pearls would continue to decorate only the privileged few if not for the ingenuity of three Japanese men: Dr. Tokichi Nishikawa (1874-1909), a marine biologist; Tatsuhei Mise (1880-1924), a carpenter with no scientific background and Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954), a vegetable vendor-turned-pearl-farmer.

In 1902, Tatsuhei Mise implanted 15,000 mollusks with lead and silver nuclei and two years later, harvested small, round cultured pearls. In 1907, he received the first ever Japanese patent for the production of a round cultured pearl.

Around the same time, Dr. Nishikawa began seeding oysters using tiny gold and silver nuclei. His process also yielded small round cultured pearls. He applied for a patent that was restricted to the implantation process that was uncannily similar to Mise’s. As the two processes were nearly identical, it became known as the Mise-Nishikawa method.

Courtesy of The Collector Fine Jewelry, Fallbrook, Calif.

Top two rows: Tahitian cultured pearls. Third row: Chinese freshwater cultured pearls. Fourth row: South Sea cultured pearls. Bottom two rows: akoya cultured pearls. Courtesy of The Collector Fine Jewelry, Fallbrook, Calif.

During this same period, Kokichi Mikimoto was also conducting seeding experiments, having settled on mother of pearl beads as the best nuclei for akoya oysters. He patented his implantation process in January 1908 and in 1912, began experimenting with the South Sea oysters Pinctada margaritifera and Pinctada maxima. In 1916, he began using the Mise-Nishikawa method and the predecessors of today’s round cultured pearls were born. Mikimoto continued to refine the seeding process and in 1921, round cultured pearls appeared on the market for the first time.

Mikimoto’s techniques produced large harvests of pearls far faster than nature could, therefore eliminating the treacherous task of divers searching for pearls on the ocean floor. The end result? Pearls had at last become affordable.


Left: CoCo Chanel, in London, ca. 1938. Right: Jackie Kennedy at her Georgetown home in August 1960.

Cultured pearl necklaces became modern fashion staples when style icons like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn, and CoCo Chanel started wearing the lustrous strands. Mikimoto scored a home run when baseball great Joe DiMaggio gave Marilyn Monroe a strand of Mikimoto cultured pearls in 1954.

Mikimoto’s experiments set the stage for future entrepreneurs. In the mid-1970s, savvy businessmen introduced “black” Tahitian cultured pearls (which are actually dark gray, brown or black with overtones that can be pink, purple, green, or blue). In the 1980s, freshwater cultured pearl farmers in China began seeding akoya oysters. In addition to China, cultured pearls from the Philippines, Australia, French Polynesia, Myanmar, Vietnam, and the United States make up the modern market.

A collection of akoya cultured pearls. Courtesy of Xuwen Pearl Paradise Co., Ltd.

A collection of akoya cultured pearls.
Courtesy of Xuwen Pearl Paradise Co., Ltd.



Pearls are organic gems that grow inside the tissue of a living saltwater or freshwater mollusk (either an oyster or a mussel). Natural pearls form when the mollusk secretes a substance called nacre around an irritant such as a piece of sand or a parasite that has invaded its shell. Cultured pearls are a product of human intervention. Technicians implant a piece of mantle tissue alone (common for freshwater cultured pearls) or with a mother-of-pearl shell bead (all saltwater) into a host mollusk. The mollusk covers the irritant with nacre, just like a natural pearl. Cultured pearls are raised in pearl farms – saltwater or freshwater operations where the mollusks are cleaned, protected from predators and eventually harvested. Thousands of years of pearl fishing have decimated the natural pearl beds, so cultured pearls account for the vast majority of pearl sales today. These cultured pearl birthstones come in a dazzling array of sizes, colors and shapes.

Pearls have long been associated with purity, humility and innocence. So it may be said that the June birthstone meaning is "sweet simplicity." As such, pearls were traditionally given as a wedding gift.

The pearl birthstone was also thought to have beneficial properties. In the ancient Sanskrit text the Atharvaveda, pearls were said to bestow long life and prosperity. In Asia, pearls were believed to help alleviate indigestion and hemorrhages. Some 19th century Arab physicians maintained that pearl powder improved eyesight, quieted nervous tremors and eased depression.

One of the most famous natural pearls is the 50.56 carat (ct) La Peregrina. About the size of a pigeon’s egg, the drop shaped pearl was discovered in the 1500s in the Gulf of Panama. It became a prized possession of European royalty. Richard Burton eventually gifted it to Elizabeth Taylor in 1969; Christie’s New York auctioned the Cartier necklace containing La Peregrina for $11.8 million in 2011.

Elizabeth Taylor’s historic 50.56 carat La Peregrina Pearl prominently features the June birthstone in a pendant to a two-strand pearl, ruby, and diamond necklace.
Cartier set Elizabeth Taylor’s historic 50.56 ct La Peregrina pearl as part of the pendant to this two-strand pearl, ruby and diamond necklace. Courtesy: Christie's


Warm waters… clear skies… dramatic scenery – it sounds like a dream beach vacation, don’t you think? It’s also an accurate description of where you'll often find these pearl birthstones.  Pearl-bearing mollusks fail to thrive in polluted waters, so pearl farms are usually located far from civilization – and often in breathtaking settings.

Saltwater cultured pearls are grown in many areas around the world. Akoya cultured pearl farms are primarily found in Japan and China, especially along the southern coasts of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. South Sea cultured pearls are farmed from the northern coast of Australia through Indonesia to the southern coast of Southeast Asia, with large operations in the Philippines as well. The Gambier Islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago, both part of French Polynesia, are two locales where the rich black Tahitian pearls are cultured. China is the dominant source of freshwater cultured pearls.

The June birthstone is found in this ocean landscape with boats docked on shore in Ago Bay, Japan an important site for akoya cultured pearl farms.
Ago Bay, Japan is one of the most important sites for akoya cultured pearl farms. Photo: Valerie Power/GIA

Landscape of French Polynesia's atolls shielding pearl farms, where the June birthstone is found, from surrounding ocean waves. The land is lined with palm trees, sheltering a lagoon that's ideal for mollusk culturing.
French Polynesia's atolls shield pearl farms from the surrounding ocean waves. Behind the fringe of palm trees, there's a sheltered lagoon that's ideal for mollusk culturing. Photo: Amanda Luke/GIA

Natural pearls have been found in the Arabian Gulf (Persian Gulf) for at least 5,000 years, while divers have been recovering the June birthstone from the Red Sea since 300 BCE. The Strait of Mannar has been providing pearls since 2000 BCE. Starting in the 16th century, during Spanish colonial rule, large quantities of pearls were recovered from the waters off Mexico, Central America and what is now Venezuela. Only small quantities of pearls are found in any of these areas today.


Pearls are 2.5 to 3.0 on the Mohs Scale of hardness, so they are a comparatively soft gem and require special care. Store them separately from other gemstones and metal jewelry to prevent scratching. Never store your pearl birthstones in a plastic bag — plastic can emit a chemical that will damage their surface. Always apply perfume, hair products and cosmetics before putting on your pearl jewelry. The best way to clean your June birthstone: Use a soft, damp cloth, ideally after each time the pearls are worn.

A baroque cultured pearl, small fancy pink and peach off-round freshwater cultured pearls, round white Australian cultured pearls, and black and brown Tahitian cultured pearls display the variety of the June birthstone.
Today, cultured pearls can be found in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes (here, measuring between 9 mm and 23 mm). From left to right: a baroque cultured pearl; small fancy pink and peach off-round freshwater cultured pearls; round white Australian cultured pearls; and black and brown Tahitian cultured pearls. Photo: Robert Weldon/GIA.

Now that you know a little more about the history of pearls and where this June Birthstone comes from, you probably have a deeper appreciation for these classic beauties! If we’ve whetted your appetite for the pearl birthstone, consider adding five essential pearl jewelry pieces to your collection. But before you begin shopping for pearls, be sure to learn about the GIA 7 Pearl Value Factors™ and what to look for with this handy Pearl Buying Guide.





Moonstone is the best-known gem of the feldspar group of minerals. It is renowned for its adularescence, the light that appears to billow across a gemstone, giving it a special glow. The finest moonstones show a blue sheen against a colorless background. This June birthstone has been associated with both the Roman and Greek lunar deities. Hindu mythology claims that it is made of solidified moonbeams. Moonstone is often associated with love, passion and fertility; it is believed to bring great luck.

Great designers of the Art Nouveau era (1890s–1910s), such as René Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany, featured moonstone in their fine jewelry. The moonstone birthstone came to the forefront again during the 1960s “flower child” movement and with New Age designers of the 1990s.

The June birthstone is featured in a Frankish disk brooch from the second half 7th century made of gold sheet, filigree, moonstone, glass cabochons, garnets, mother-of-pearl, and moonstone.
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