June – the pearl
The Ancients knew all about pearls and where they could be found and about their beauty and rarity and their inestimable value when they occur naturally. A Rabbinical story suggests that only a beautiful woman is more valuable than pearls. A Roman poet called them “the gems of the sea, which resemble milk and snow.” “And the twelve gates were twelve pearls,” wrote the author of the Book of Revelations and an ancient fable describes them as “the frozen tears of unknown gods”.
Pliny, in his book, The Natural History, describes pearls as “the fruit of shell fish”, the beauty and size of the jewels being governed by the quality and quantity of “the dew” that they received – fair weather created white pearls and dark ones when it was cloudy. In fact, pearls can be found in many subtle shades of white from cream to rose pink – and also black! The belief that dew formed pearls was last recorded in the 15th century.
Horace Walpole describes Queen Elizabeth I as wearing “a bushel of pearls”, embroidered on her clothes, decorating her hair, threaded onto fine silk to form necklaces – although some of her collection were reported to be fake! Her half-sister, Bloody Mary, was given a huge pearl by the King of Spain which – curiously – the British royal family did not keep in its possession. This pearl is called ‘La Peregrina’, The Incomparable, and the late Richard Burton bought it and presented it his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
The rivers Tay and Isla were pearl fishing in Scotland until the late 20th century. In 1760, the zoölogist, Thomas Pennant, reported “From the year 1761 to 1764, £10,000 worth were sent to London, and sold from 10 shillings to £1 and 6 shillings per pounce”. Scottish pearls commanded very high prices. Today, many of the famous British pearl fisheries are exhausted and so the beauty and rarity of these lovely pearls have raised their value and many of the traditional salt water fisheries have been destroyed by pollution. Today, China is the biggest producer of cultured pearls.
Pearl ring and earring: Photography Paul Hartley, Hartley Studios: www.hartleystudios.com