Skip to content

The Ugly Historical past of Lovely Issues: Pearls

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,107 phrases)
In The Ugly Historical past of Lovely Issues, Katy Kelleher lays naked the darkish underbellies of the issues we adorn ourselves with. Beforehand: the grisly sides of fragrance and angora.
* * *
“There was as soon as upon a time a really previous lady, who lived along with her flock of geese in a waste place among the many mountains, and there had slightly home,” begins The Goose Woman on the Properly. Printed by the Brothers Grimm, this unusual little story describes a princess who involves stay with a poor crone in that wretched waste place after she fails her father’s Lear-like take a look at to profess her love and devotion. The lady is beautiful, as befits a fairy-tale princess — “white as snow, as rosy as apple-blossom, and her hair as radiant as sun-beams” — however there’s one element that all the time snags in my thoughts: “When she cried, not tears fell from her eyes, however pearls and jewels solely.”
The remainder of the story is a bit boring, I’m sorry to say. The lady returns house, the king learns his folly, and the previous lady disappears into skinny air, taking solely the valuable stones that fell from the lady’s magical tear ducts. Nevertheless it ends on a humorous notice:
This a lot is definite, that the previous lady was no witch, as individuals thought, however a smart lady who meant nicely. Very probably it was she who, on the princess’s beginning, gave her the present of weeping pearls as an alternative of tears. That doesn’t occur now-a-days, or else the poor would quickly develop into wealthy.
I want Grimm’s narrator had lived to see our world, one the place pearls are so cheap that just about anybody can personal a pearl necklace or a set of earrings. These gem stones are now not valuable, and so they come neither from red-rimmed eyes nor from secret caverns within the ocean, however from underwater baskets strung collectively on sprawling sea-farms. Pearls have been as soon as mystical objects, believed by some to be the tears of Eve, by others to be the tears of Aphrodite. There are tales of pearls falling out of girls’s mouths after they utter candy phrases, and pearls showing from the spray of sea foam as a goddess is born. Now we all know higher: pearls are made out of a number of the primary and customary constructing blocks of nature — calcium, carbon, oxygen, organized into calcium carbonate particles, bund collectively by natural proteins. They’re created out of animal ache, which has been sublimated into one thing iridescent and clean, layered and wonderful. Born of irritation, these gem stones will be mass-produced and bought with the press of a button. These gems, like so many issues, have misplaced a few of their luster due to the on a regular basis degradation of worth that comes with globalization and 24/7 entry to client items. Because of Amazon, you now not must plumb the depths of a river or go to a jeweler to buy a set of freshwater pearl drops. With one-click ordering, you may have a pair of dangling ivory orbs delivered to your home inside days — in some locations, hours..
And but: think about opening an oyster and seeing that slimy amorphous lump of muscle, and nestled amongst it, a single pearl. The truth that such iridescent, shape-shifting magnificence can come from a mucus-y mollusk stays one thing of a miracle, primal proof that the world orients itself towards magnificence. Or so I wish to consider.

* * *
Most mollusks could make a pearl underneath the suitable situations. A mollusk is an invertebrate that has an unsegmented, squishy physique enclosed by a membrane known as a mantle. These unusual aquatic creatures date again greater than 540 million years. Homo sapiens arrived on the scene 300,000 years in the past, making mollusks tons of of tens of millions of years older than individuals.
The phrase mollusk comes from the Latin for “smooth,” as a result of they’re; even the extra outlined mollusks like octopuses and squid have a floppy fluidity. As a phylum, Mollusca is a big group that features 23% of all marine organisms, together with snails, slugs, clams, oysters, mussels, cuttlefish, octopus, squid, chitons, sea hares, and sea butterflies. As unbelievable because it sounds, squid and octopuses can each produce pearl-like growths (extra particularly, calcareous concretions), however not all mollusk-made lumps are shiny and fairly. Many pearls seem like rocks — uninteresting pebbles, animal waste merchandise with no higher worth. To create an iridescent pearl, the organism should be capable to secrete nacre, a calcium carbonate substance that hardens over time. A small particle of foo, or slightly piece of silt or sand lodges inside their shell, and the mollusk slowly coats the irritant with layer after layer of nacre. Some mollusks, together with abalone and mussels, line the inside of their whole shell in nacre, creating attractive mother-of-pearl whose shimmering shades of blue, inexperienced, and purple dance just like the Northern Lights.
The truth that such iridescent, shape-shifting magnificence can come from a mucus-y mollusk stays one thing of a miracle, primal proof that the world orients itself towards magnificence. Or so I wish to consider.
Nacre is surprisingly sturdy and laborious: although it’s composed of 95% aragonite (calcium carbonite), the association of its molecules makes it 3,000 instances much less prone to fracture. They don’t lie in flat layers, however fairly interlock, with elastic biopolymers (like chitin) performing because the natural mortar between aragonite bricks, explains Robin Lloyd in a 2004 article for LiveScience. Predictably, this unbelievable pure phenomenon has been hailed as an incredible discovery for the navy. “Abalone shell can not cease an AK-47 bullet,” writes Lloyd, however scientists are hopeful that additional examine of the abalone might result in the event of light-weight and efficient physique armor for “troopers, police, spies, and others.”
Whereas historical people did make weapons from seashells, our earliest tales about pearls will not be so bellicose. Impossibly laborious and supernaturally gleaming, pearls have been considered as female, treasures born of a goddess. It’s simple to know this visible connection; clam is just not probably the most surprising slang time period for a vagina. (This affiliation lives on right now with Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls, a newfangled type of douching that advertises a capability to make your downstairs area “tremendous fleeky.”) This may occasionally have contributed to the pearl’s popularity as a philter, or love potion. Based on The Encyclopedia of Aphrodisiacs, pearls are a logo of affection due to their affiliation with Aphrodite and Venus, the Greek, and Roman goddesses of affection, respectively. The authors notice that, “Venus herself can be known as pearl or pearl of the ocean, and her pubic hair is known as pearl gate. Within the treasury of Aphrodite’s temple, individuals hoarded pearls.” In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, writer Richard Webster provides that pearls have been used traditionally to assist {couples} conceive. Would-be mother and father can provide sperm a lift by putting a pearl underneath the girl’s pillow whereas they do the deed.
However maybe probably the most well-known legend about this animal-made gemstone comes from historical Egypt. Pearls have been all the fashion in historical Egypt and Rome, and lots of the wealthiest ladies in society wore them to reveal their wealth and standing. However even probably the most pearl-encrusted robe couldn’t compete with Cleopatra’s epic flex: one night time, at dinner, the queen took off considered one of her large pearl earrings, dropped it in a glass of sturdy vinegar, and downed the dissolved mineral combination in a single shot.
This long-disputed story involves us from Pliny. Based on the historian, Cleopatra drank the pearl to win a guess with Mark Antony. Translated by Berthold L. Ullman, the cheeky story is value quoting in its entirety:
The final of the Egyptian queens owned the 2 largest pearls of all time, left to her by oriental kings. When Antony was stuffing himself every day with uncommon meals, she proudly and impertinently, just like the royal harlot that she was, sneered at his makes an attempt at luxurious and extravagance. When he requested her what might be added in the best way of sumptuousness she replied that she would burn up 10,000,000 sesterces at one dinner. Antony was desirous to find out about it however didn’t assume it might be accomplished. In order that they made a guess, and on the subsequent day when the guess was to be determined, she set earlier than Antony a dinner that underneath different circumstances would have been an impressive one however was an on a regular basis affair for Antony. She did this in order that the day shouldn’t be totally wasted. Antony laughed at her and requested for the reckoning. However she stated that this was merely a preliminary and warranted him that the actual banquet would burn up the estimated sum and that she would devour the half-million greenback dinner all by herself. Then she ordered the dessert to be served. Based on directions, the servants positioned however one dish earlier than her, containing vinegar whose acidity and energy dissolves pearls into slush. She was on the time carrying in her ears that outstanding and really distinctive work of nature often known as pearls. So whereas Antony was questioning what on the planet she was going to do, she took one pearl from her ear, plunged it into the vinegar, and when it was dissolved, swallowed it. Lucius Plancus, who was refereeing the guess, put his hand on the opposite pearl as she was getting ready to dissolve it in like method and declared Antony the loser.
Ullman estimates that this occasion could have taken place between 34 and 32 B.C.E., only a twenty years after Julius Caesar invaded Britain, a navy motion that was purportedly pushed partially by Caesar’s love for pearls and the island nation’s abundance of freshwater gems. The pearl mania of historical Rome would attain its peak within the first century C.E., and on the top of the craze, legend has it that Caligula went as far as to make his favourite horse a consul, then topped off the insult by draping the equine in a pearl necklace. (This may occasionally simply be one of many many myths concerning the debaucherous ruler; it’s laborious to know for certain.)
Pearls aren’t simply related to intercourse and cash, however with extra. At Artwork Journal, Peter Tomory describes how Cleopatra turned often known as the “epitome of Luxuria, that medieval vice pictured as a bejeweled bare lady.” Representations of Cleopatra in medieval and Renaissance artwork used the pearl to tell viewers that they weren’t gazing at any bare-breasted noble, however fairly the personification of a lethal sin. Earlier than “lust” was one of many sins, it was known as luxuria. Luxuria was about extra than simply sexual need. It wasn’t simply wanting. Luxuria was a glut of libido. Generally, this sin was proven as a “profane kind of Aphrodite,” which is one interpretation of Pisanello’s drawing of a reclining nude determine. Piero di Cosimo’s portray of Simonetta Vespucci as Cleopatra is much less overtly erotic, however the snake winding round her collar do recall to mind one other well-known temptress — Eve. For these artists, and for his or her medieval viewers, luxuria was a sin higher than your on a regular basis sexual urges. Luxuria was erotic, shameful, harmful, and darkish.
I’ve all the time considered pearls as stuffy jewels, prim and correct and above all, preppy. However that’s probably the most fascinating issues concerning the pearl — it’s a Janus image. Like Janus phrases, which imply one factor and its reverse (like cleave, which may imply each to stick or separate, or my private favourite, pores and skin), the pearl can stand for each Madonna and whore, smutty intercourse and pious purity. There may be a complete chapter in Individuals and Pearls, titled “Innocents,” which paperwork the assorted ways in which pearls have been used to rejoice milestones in a lady’s life, from beginning, baptism, first communion, or bat mitzvah, all the best way as much as the ultimate one: betrothal. “Pearl’s aqueous origins provide a logical affiliation with cleansings,” write Ki Hackney and Diana Edkins. Queen Elizabeth I, the well-known “Virgin Queen,” was typically depicted carrying strings of pearls. She wore pearl earrings and pearls in her hair. Her attire had pearl buttons and there have been pearls sewn into the trim. Along with signifying her chastity, these pearls additionally known as to thoughts the moon — one other luminous orb. Moon goddesses, like Cynthia and Diana, have been identified to be fierce, chaste, and devoted — all qualities that the ruler hoped to embody.
I might make a listing of all of the well-known ladies who’ve worn pearls; there are Russian czarinas, American first girls, Hollywood royalty, New York debutantes — all the same old suspects, actually. For hundreds of years, pearls have been conventional presents for upper-class ladies. They will mark nearly any milestone, although they’re extra generally given to younger ladies. Advertising corporations turned diamonds right into a “ladies’ greatest buddy,” however earlier than De Beers conned Individuals into lusting after sparkly hunks of carbon, pearls have been the jewel of selection for engagement rings and different presents. “The highway to decoration as standing image all the time leads again to the pearl,” asserts Individuals and Pearls. “It’s good. With out sharpening, piercing, or planning, pearls will be woven collectively, strung aspect by aspect, or positioned in particular person settings. Pearls stand on their very own with beautiful splendor.”
For over six millennia, pearls have been frequent sufficient to work as a logo, however uncommon sufficient to be helpful. That’s, till they weren’t.
* * *
Pearls will be discovered anyplace mollusks are discovered, which is mainly in all places. There are freshwater pearls and seawater pearls, pearls present in rivers, and pearls pulled from bays. Earlier than the early 1900s, most pearls have been foraged, created naturally by oysters and mussels. Seawater pearl diving was large enterprise within the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar, off the coast of Sri Lanka. Historic peoples dove for pearls off sections of the Caribbean coasts, alongside the Pacific coast of Central America, off the coast of Venezuela, and within the Sulu Archipelago. Freshwater pearls have been plucked from rivers in Europe, China, and North America, significantly round present-day Ohio and Tennessee; archeologists unearthed roughly 36,000 pearls from a single mound close to Anderson Township, Ohio that will have dated again to 300 B.C.E. However pearl diving, whether or not it was in contemporary water or salty, was harmful. It additionally smelled rank: typically, pearl oysters have been dropped in a giant pile on shore and left to rot. Maggots would crawl out and in, feasting on the flesh, till nothing remained however shells and, hopefully, some pearls. Typically, individuals didn’t eat the mollusks. Their our bodies have been worthless, as have been their lives. The worth got here from their sublimated ache, their harm made laborious and clean and spherical and iridescent.
Based on Pearls: A Pure Historical past by Neil H. Landman and Paula M. Mikkelsen, early pearl diving was a reasonably standardized affair, whether or not it came about within the balmy waters of the Philippines or the chilly rivers of the Scottish highlands. “A diver held his breath, went down 10 to 15 meters (to greater than 30 meters in some areas) collected a number of clams, after which surfaced to organize for an additional dive. Diving was harmful, and divers have been normally poor and infrequently unfree.” Unfree isn’t simply an odd euphemism for enslave — Pearl divers have been typically slaves, however simply as typically they have been indentured (there have been additionally some free pearl-divers, too). The issues confronted by these looking for to make a enterprise of pearls have been “not in contrast to these confronted by managers of mines for gems and valuable metals and have been equally solved — by limiting the employees’ mobility via indebtedness, government-required labor service, indenture, peonage, or precise slavery,” continues Pearls. “Regardless of the seeming glamor of pearl diving, [it] concerned a substantial amount of oppression and distress.” Shark assaults weren’t unusual and have been typically lethal, and plenty of divers suffered from hyperventilation-induced blackouts (aka nitrogen narcosis) upon surfacing. The longer they stayed underwater, the extra they may earn (or the much less they have been punished) so divers would push their our bodies to the restrict. Divers who blacked out upon surfacing might be revived, however those that misplaced consciousness underneath water have been liable to drowning. Whereas a lot has modified due to the introduction of snorkels and tanks, there are nonetheless pearl divers working in elements of the world utilizing extra conventional strategies. And even with respiratory gadgets, pearl divers typically die on the job. In 2012, a younger man named Jarrod Hampton was on his second day working for Paspaley Pearling Firm off the Australian coast when he turned incapacitated by an air embolism. The native water police dive squad reported considerations concerning the security and requirements on board the corporate boat, together with insufficient coaching, and lack of correct tools (similar to defibrillators and oxygen-therapy tools). Paspaley was additionally paying the divers per shell collected, which gave employees a monetary incentive to disregard the early indicators of fatigue. After Hampton’s dying, the corporate was fined $60,000 for “failing to offer a protected office.” Hampton’s mother and father have since campaigned for laws — which his mom “affectionately name[ed] Jarod’s Regulation” — to deal with these issues. “My intention was for change,” she stated. “So we are able to know the longer term for pearl divers goes to be safer.”
Huge-scale pearl cultivation started in Japan in 1916 after an enterprising entrepreneur named Kokichi Mikimoto was granted a patent for his invasive methodology of pearl rising, which concerned inserting a spherical bead nucleus, made out of polished shell and a little bit of mantle tissue, into the gonads of an oyster. Others had found out the key to cultivating pearls earlier than, however Mikimoto was capable of scale this unusual discovery in a approach nobody else had. “For the oysters, at the least, it was a painful secret to have revealed,” writes Victoria Finlay in Jewels: A Secret Historical past. “It’s ironic that to create the jewel that symbolizes purity it’s a must to commit what is likely to be labeled surgical rape in a extra subtle organism.” Though it solely takes a number of seconds to implant the nucleus into the oysters’ organs, it takes them as much as three months to get well from the trauma, writes Finlay, and plenty of of those small, homely creatures die.

Kickstart your weekend studying by getting the week’s greatest Longreads delivered to your inbox each Friday afternoon.

Based on Finlay, Mikimoto is remembered as a sort man who would have “most likely been astonished if anybody had steered his business was merciless.” He denied that he was working in pearls to get wealthy, and insisted that he needed convey pleasure to odd Japanese residents. “He believed that everybody, from the poor noodle-seller’s spouse to the richest particular person in Japan, ought to have the suitable to see magnificence and to personal and put on it, and he would start the method by democratizing pearls,” Finlay writes. Up till this level, pearls in Japan had been worn as badges of utmost wealth, signifiers of energy. They have been, like pearls typically are, a approach of telegraphing feminine energy.
Pearl cultivation caught on, and now it’s attainable for most individuals to buy cultivated pearls. They arrive in a wide range of colours, from grey to gold to pink. However there are nonetheless tiers of worth, and probably the most helpful gems are those dredged from the underside of the ocean. Renee Newman, writer of Pearl Shopping for Information and graduate of the Gemological Institute of America, has researching and writing about pearls for many years. “There may be extra demand for saltwater pearls,” she explains. “When individuals from Muslim international locations purchase pearls, they don’t need freshwater pearls. They need pearls with historical past, pearls from the Arabian gulf.” Individuals in Indonesia have a tendency to purchase Indonesian pearls, and Japanese customers want pearls “made in Japan.” Pure pearls command the next worth, Newman explains, even though, “in the event you don’t see the distinction, there actually isn’t one. And also you normally can’t see the distinction.”
* * *
I don’t personal a pearl necklace, however I do have a jar on my nightstand that’s labeled “Magnificence Mud.” This jar is filled with nacre. One of many foremost components in Magnificence Mud is “pearl powder,” which is strictly what it seems like: pulverized pearls.
I’m no Cleopatra, ingesting a fortune in a single swig, however I can stir Magnificence Mud into my morning espresso. I can’t assist however really feel responsible as I drink my muddy potion; it helps to do not forget that pearl powder is a standard a part of Ayurvedic drugs and conventional Chinese language drugs, however solely slightly. One other a part of me hopes for a contact of apple-blossom pores and skin, a sun-lit lilt to my hair. Possibly, some treasonous nook of my thoughts whispers, possibly it is going to work.
Daniel Katz runs a holistic therapeutic middle. He has been working with conventional Chinese language herbs for years, however he tends to not use pearl powder. “It’s too costly,” he says. “And there are different mineral herbs which have comparable properties which can be safer to make use of in numerous doses.” Pearl powder was as soon as used to calm the physique. Practitioners used it to deal with seizures and convulsions. “In historical instances, they used it for individuals who have been unsettled. If somebody was possessed, or have a fright, the place your complete physique was on edge, you can use it to weigh the particular person down,” he explains. Crushed up pearls have been additionally typically prescribed for ulcers or hard-to-heal sores. Nevertheless, Katz notes, “In additional trendy instances, individuals have a tendency to make use of it extra for pores and skin and sweetness.”
In 2016, Vogue ran an article on-line titled “May Pearl Powder Save Your Pores and skin?” The piece quoted controversial Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon (who rose to prominence after her really fantastical 2015 meals diary for Elle went viral) and famous that pearl powder has “acquired the seal of approval from Goop.” The wellness gurus have weighed in, reported probably the most influential trend journal on the planet, and decided that pearl powder is a “magnificence superfood” you should know. Some individuals have claimed that pearl powder, utilized topically or ingested, may also help make your pores and skin extra luminous, make the whites of your eyes whiter, and provide you with a dewy, youthful glow. Wanting into my little tub of dirt-gray mud, I really feel skepticism rising in me like bile.
Made primarily from cultivated pearls, the powder is the results of torturing a small animal, extracting the image of their ache, and crushing it down till it’s finer than sand. And but, this course of strikes me as significantly applicable, contemplating the best way we conceive of the pearl. Pearls have all the time been ache made seen, each in a literal sense and a metaphoric one. We stay in a world that often asks ladies to showcase their ache, to shine it properly for public consumption and current it. Usually, feminine ache is used to assist males mature. It’s a typical sufficient trope in literature and tv (think about Theon Greyjoy’s gradual redemption on Recreation of Thrones or the comedian guide trope of “Girls in Fridges”) however we see this in actual life, too. We ask ladies like Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill to wrap their ache up in a bow, to show it into one thing we are able to use. We ask victims of rape to relive their trauma over and over as a way to be believed. Ache have to be made seen, made public, to ensure that it to be actual. We count on ache to occur — it’s, as Lili Loofbourow places it, the “feminine worth of male pleasure” — and we require that or not it’s one way or the other product of use. It’s an unpleasant factor, the best way we deal with each ladies and mollusks.
And for what? That is the query I’m wondering. I perceive the will to personal an exquisite factor, and the necessity to encompass your self with shining objects and glittering gems. Magnificence deadens the ache of the world slightly bit. It mitigates the ugliness of life. But it’s value remembering that your Magnificence Mud wasn’t created in a vacuum. It wasn’t made by magic. Likelihood is, it gained’t even work. “There’s no mineral in pearls that may’t be discovered elsewhere at a way more affordable worth,” physician and well being author James Hamblin informed me in an e-mail. “Each cent spent on pearl powder might’ve gone to offer primary vitamins to any of the world’s 815 million really malnourished individuals.” He calls pearl powder a “gross misappropriation of wealth” that can “make an individual really feel solely extra empty” and suggests taking the cash you have been going to spend on that vial of Magnificence Mud and funneling it towards a charity.
After all, it’s too late for me. I’m caught with this pearl powder. It’s purchased and paid for, and other than ingesting it down, I can’t think about what I’d do with it. So for now, I’ll proceed to combine it into my chai tea. I’ll proceed to sip away at this pile of mud till it’s gone. Possibly pearls will rain from my mouth, possibly my pores and skin will develop into radiant, possibly I will likely be blessed with Cleopatra’s magnificence. Frankly, I’d fairly have my a refund.
* * *
Katy Kelleher is a contract author and editor based mostly in Maine whose work has appeared in Artwork New England, Boston journal, The Paris Overview, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Occasions Journal. She’s additionally the writer of the guide Handcrafted Maine.
Editor: Michelle WeberFactchecker: Matt Giles
Like this:Like Loading…