Pearl pride: UAE's national treasure is the 'Queen of Gems and Gem of Queens'

As a new book by the senior jeweller curator of the V&A explains, pearls are not a mineral but an organic material that came fully formed from the oceans as the earliest precious gem

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Synonymous with luxury, romance, power and purity, the pearl is a gem that has represented women throughout history. While ruby may be the Leader of Gems, and diamonds the King, pearl is the Queen of Gems, and the Gem of Queens.

It is the perfect term for its role as the most feminine gemstone of all, its history inextricably linked with some of the most famous women in the world.

Pearls immediately make me think of Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and Princess Margaret – all icons of glamour, and not only romantic celebrities, but also powerful leading ladies. These were women who knew what they wanted, and in their fashion choices that was pearls.

Only the pearl can be equally a special occasion and an everyday piece, an expression of timeless elegance that represents both glamour and simplicity. Pearls can be worn anywhere, suitable for a picnic or going to a ball.

Whereas other gems have seen their reputations fluctuate down the ages, the pearl’s reign has been almost uninterrupted. This peerless reputation is well earned. The magic of the pearl does not just derive from its distinctive appearance but from its unique journey. The pearl is by definition a different beast, as it also comes from a different place.

They were probably the earliest precious gems to come into human hands. Pearls have been recovered from grave sites along the coast of the Gulf, spanning the modern UAE and Oman, that date back to the sixth millennium BC.

Pearls have been in human circulation for so long simply because of where and how we find them: not underground but underwater, the product not of vast geological events that date back hundreds of millions of years, but a biological process that happens in less than a decade in the miniature context of a mollusc’s humble shell.

The pearl is not even a gemstone at all, but an organic gem material – what some in the trade now refer to as a biogenic gem, one created by a living organism.

That the pearl comes from oceans and rivers explains why it has such a long history – it was discovered by our prehistoric predecessors as soon as they started fishing for food. But it was not formed quite as the ancients believed.

The traditional explanation is that some kind of foreign body, like a grain of sand, enters the shell and becomes lodged in the fleshy outer mantle, causing the host creature to secrete protective layers of nacre, or mother-of-pearl, around the invading irritant.

This theory has been challenged by marine biologists who suggest instead that the gem is a reaction to damage to the mollusc’s mantle, to which it responds by creating a pearl sac, containing cells that secrete the ingredients of nacre as it heals.

Either case helps to explain the distinctive visual qualities of the pearl: the glow that appears to emanate from within, and the rich rainbow colours that seem to bounce off its surface.

The thicker the layers of nacre, generally the more intense the lustre. Like any other gem, the qualities of its colour and shape are determined by the conditions in which it grew.

Pearl-producing molluscs span a variety of species, birthing gems across a wide spectrum of colours, including rare and valuable black pearls (also incorporating shades of grey, green and silver) made by the black-lip pearl oyster, native to the South Pacific, and gems with hues ranging from champagne to bronze, formed inside the golden-lip pearl oyster, found in Indonesia, Australia and the Philippines. Shape varies according to the shell in which it forms.

The widespread demand for pearls is rooted in their long-standing symbolic associations with majesty and virtue in particular.

In the Quran, pearls hang from the trees in the paradise to which righteous believers are admitted and where they are handed bracelets of gold and pearl. The Book of Revelation describes the gates to the kingdom of heaven as ‘twelve pearls’. While in the Rigveda, Krishna is described as retrieving the first pearl from the ocean and presenting it to his daughter on her wedding day.

It is a timeless classic that has also been the subject of many subtle reinventions – different ways to wear it, new ways to produce it, associations that have evolved as well as endured.

It is the embodiment of the democratisation of jewellery, women’s liberation in gem form. Historically an elite symbol, it has become the gem that every woman can buy, whether from a historic estate for $35 million or a department store for $35.

Yet for all this change in 7,000 years, really nothing has changed about why we wear pearls. They are still the miracle of nature that emerges fully formed, with a shape, life and lustre that seems heaven-sent. A gem you want to wear all the time, to touch and feel – to hold and never let go.

This is an edited extract from ‘Precious: The History and Mystery of Gems Across Time’, by Helen Molesworth (Doubleday, £30), which is available in hardback now.

Updated: May 29, 2024, 7:42 AM