The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Pearls

Born from irritation and intrusion, luminous and complex, surprisingly durable: pearls are rich with symbolism and saturated with pain.

Katy Kelleher | Longreads | March 2019 | 16 minutes (4,107 words)

In The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, Katy Kelleher lays bare the dark underbellies of the things we adorn ourselves with. Previously: the grisly sides of perfume and angora.

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“There was once upon a time a very old woman, who lived with her flock of geese in a waste place among the mountains, and there had a little house,” begins The Goose Girl at the Well. Published by the Brothers Grimm, this strange little story describes a princess who comes to live with a poor crone in that wretched waste place after she fails her father’s Lear-like test to profess her love and devotion. The girl is lovely, as befits a fairy-tale princess — “white as snow, as rosy as apple-blossom, and her hair as radiant as sun-beams” — but there is one detail that always snags in my mind: “When she cried, not tears fell from her eyes, but pearls and jewels only.”

The rest of the story is a bit boring, I’m sorry to say. The girl returns home, the king learns his folly, and the old woman disappears into thin air, taking only the precious stones that fell from the girl’s magical tear ducts. But it ends on a funny note:

This much is certain, that the old woman was no witch, as people thought, but a wise woman who meant well. Very likely it was she who, at the princess’s birth, gave her the gift of weeping pearls instead of tears. That does not happen now-a-days, or else the poor would soon become rich.

I wish Grimm’s narrator had lived to see our world, one where pearls are so inexpensive that almost anyone can own a pearl necklace or a set of earrings. These gemstones are no longer precious, and they come neither from red-rimmed eyes nor from secret caverns in the ocean, but from underwater baskets strung together on sprawling sea-farms. Pearls were once mystical objects, believed by some to be the tears of Eve, by others to be the tears of Aphrodite. There are stories of pearls falling out of women’s mouths when they utter sweet words, and pearls appearing from the spray of sea foam as a goddess is born. Now we know better: pearls are made from some of the basic and common building blocks of nature — calcium, carbon, oxygen, arranged into calcium carbonate particles, bund together by organic proteins. They are created out of animal pain, which has been sublimated into something iridescent and smooth, layered and lovely. Born of irritation, these gemstones can be mass-produced and purchased with the click of a button. These gems, like so many things, have lost some of their luster thanks to the everyday degradation of value that comes with globalization and 24/7 access to consumer goods. Thanks to Amazon, you no longer need to plumb the depths of a river or visit a jeweler to purchase a set of freshwater pearl drops. With one-click ordering, you can have a pair of dangling ivory orbs delivered to your house within days — in some places, hours..

And yet: imagine opening an oyster and seeing that slimy amorphous lump of muscle, and nestled among it, a single pearl. The fact that such iridescent, shape-shifting beauty can come from a mucus-y mollusk remains something of a miracle, primal evidence that the world orients itself toward beauty. Or so I want to believe.

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Most mollusks can make a pearl under the right conditions. A mollusk is an invertebrate that has an unsegmented, squishy body enclosed by a membrane called a mantle. These strange aquatic creatures date back more than 540 million years. Homo sapiens arrived on the scene 300,000 years ago, making mollusks hundreds of millions of years older than people.

The word mollusk comes from the Latin for “soft,” because they are; even the more defined mollusks like octopuses and squid have a floppy fluidity. As a phylum, Mollusca is a huge group that includes 23% of all marine organisms, including snails, slugs, clams, oysters, mussels, cuttlefish, octopus, squid, chitons, sea hares, and sea butterflies. As incredible as it sounds, squid and octopuses can both produce pearl-like growths (more specifically, calcareous concretions), but not all mollusk-made lumps are shiny and pretty. Many pearls look like rocks — dull pebbles, animal waste products with no greater value. To create an iridescent pearl, the organism must be able to secrete nacre, a calcium carbonate substance that hardens over time. A small particle of foo, or a little piece of silt or sand lodges inside their shell, and the mollusk slowly coats the irritant with layer after layer of nacre. Some mollusks, including abalone and mussels, line the interior of their entire shell in nacre, creating gorgeous mother-of-pearl whose shimmering shades of blue, green, and purple dance like the Northern Lights.

The fact that such iridescent, shape-shifting beauty can come from a mucus-y mollusk remains something of a miracle, primal evidence that the world orients itself toward beauty. Or so I want to believe.

Nacre is surprisingly durable and hard: even though it’s composed of 95% aragonite (calcium carbonite), the arrangement of its molecules makes it 3,000 times less likely to fracture. They don’t lie in flat layers, but rather interlock, with elastic biopolymers (like chitin) acting as the organic mortar between aragonite bricks, explains Robin Lloyd in a 2004 article for LiveScience. Predictably, this incredible natural phenomenon has been hailed as a great discovery for the military. “Abalone shell cannot stop an AK-47 bullet,” writes Lloyd, but scientists are hopeful that further study of the abalone could lead to the development of lightweight and effective body armor for “soldiers, police, spies, and others.”

While ancient humans did make weapons from seashells, our earliest stories about pearls are not so bellicose. Impossibly hard and supernaturally gleaming, pearls were viewed as feminine, treasures born of a goddess. It’s easy to understand this visual connection; clam is not the most unexpected slang term for a vagina. (This association lives on today with Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearls, a newfangled form of douching that advertises an ability to make your downstairs region “super fleeky.”) This may have contributed to the pearl’s reputation as a philter, or love potion. According to The Encyclopedia of Aphrodisiacs, pearls are a symbol of love thanks to their association with Aphrodite and Venus, the Greek, and Roman goddesses of love, respectively. The authors note that, “Venus herself is also called pearl or pearl of the sea, and her pubic hair is called pearl gate. In the treasury of Aphrodite’s temple, people hoarded pearls.” In The Encyclopedia of Superstitions, author Richard Webster adds that pearls have been used historically to help couples conceive. Would-be parents can give sperm a boost by placing a pearl under the woman’s pillow while they do the deed.

But perhaps the most famous legend about this animal-made gemstone comes from ancient Egypt. Pearls were all the rage in ancient Egypt and Rome, and many of the wealthiest women in society wore them to demonstrate their wealth and status. But even the most pearl-encrusted gown couldn’t compete with Cleopatra’s epic flex: one night, at dinner, the queen took off one of her massive pearl earrings, dropped it in a glass of strong vinegar, and downed the dissolved mineral mixture in one shot.

This long-disputed tale comes to us from Pliny. According to the historian, Cleopatra drank the pearl to win a bet with Mark Antony. Translated by Berthold L. Ullman, the cheeky story is worth quoting in its entirety:

The last of the Egyptian queens owned the two largest pearls of all time, left to her by oriental kings. When Antony was stuffing himself daily with rare foods, she proudly and impertinently, like the royal harlot that she was, sneered at his attempts at luxury and extravagance. When he asked her what could be added in the way of sumptuousness she replied that she would use up 10,000,000 sesterces at one dinner. Antony was eager to learn about it but didn’t think it could be done. So they made a bet, and on the next day when the bet was to be decided, she set before Antony a dinner that under other circumstances would have been a magnificent one but was an everyday affair for Antony. She did this so that the day should not be entirely wasted. Antony laughed at her and asked for the reckoning. But she said that this was merely a preliminary and assured him that the real banquet would use up the estimated sum and that she would consume the half-million dollar dinner all by herself. Then she ordered the dessert to be served. According to instructions, the servants placed but one dish before her, containing vinegar whose acidity and strength dissolves pearls into slush. She was at the time wearing in her ears that remarkable and truly unique work of nature known as pearls. So while Antony was wondering what in the world 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 bet, put his hand on the other pearl as she was preparing to dissolve it in like manner and declared Antony the loser.

Ullman estimates that this event may have taken place between 34 and 32 B.C.E., just a two decades after Julius Caesar invaded Britain, a military action that was purportedly driven in part by Caesar’s love for pearls and the island country’s abundance of freshwater gems. The pearl mania of ancient Rome would reach its peak in the first century C.E., and at the height of the craze, legend has it that Caligula went so far as to make his favorite horse a consul, then topped off the insult by draping the equine in a pearl necklace. (This may just be one of the many myths about the debaucherous ruler; it’s hard to know for sure.)

Pearls aren’t just associated with sex and money, but with excess. At Art Journal, Peter Tomory describes how Cleopatra became known as the “epitome of Luxuria, that medieval vice pictured as a bejeweled naked woman.” Representations of Cleopatra in medieval and Renaissance art used the pearl to inform viewers that they weren’t gazing at any bare-breasted noble, but rather the personification of a deadly sin. Before “lust” was one of the sins, it was called luxuria. Luxuria was about more than just sexual desire. It wasn’t just wanting. Luxuria was a glut of libido. Sometimes, this sin was shown as a “profane type of Aphrodite,” which is one interpretation of Pisanello’s drawing of a reclining nude figure. Piero di Cosimo’s painting of Simonetta Vespucci as Cleopatra is less overtly erotic, but the snake winding around her collar do call to mind another famous temptress — Eve. For these artists, and for their medieval audience, luxuria was a sin greater than your everyday sexual urges. Luxuria was erotic, shameful, dangerous, and dark.

I’ve always thought of pearls as stuffy jewels, prim and proper and above all, preppy. But that’s one of the most fascinating things about the pearl — it’s a Janus symbol. Like Janus words, which mean one thing and its opposite (like cleave, which can mean both to adhere or separate, or my personal favorite, skin), the pearl can stand for both Madonna and whore, smutty sex and pious purity. There is an entire chapter in People and Pearls, titled “Innocents,” which documents the various ways that pearls have been used to celebrate milestones in a girl’s life, from birth, baptism, first communion, or bat mitzvah, all the way up to the final one: betrothal. “Pearl’s aqueous origins offer a logical association with cleansings,” write Ki Hackney and Diana Edkins. Queen Elizabeth I, the famous “Virgin Queen,” was often depicted wearing strings of pearls. She wore pearl earrings and pearls in her hair. Her dresses had pearl buttons and there were pearls sewn into the trim. In addition to signifying her chastity, these pearls also called to mind the moon — another luminous orb. Moon goddesses, like Cynthia and Diana, were known to be fierce, chaste, and dedicated — all qualities that the ruler hoped to embody.

I could make a list of all the famous women who have worn pearls; there are Russian czarinas, American first ladies, Hollywood royalty, New York debutantes — all the usual suspects, really. For centuries, pearls have been traditional gifts for upper-class women. They can mark almost any milestone, though they are more commonly given to young women. Marketing companies turned diamonds into a “girls’ best friend,” but before De Beers conned Americans into lusting after sparkly hunks of carbon, pearls were the jewel of choice for engagement rings and other gifts. “The road to ornament as status symbol always leads back to the pearl,” asserts People and Pearls. “It is perfect. Without polishing, piercing, or planning, pearls can be woven together, strung side by side, or placed in individual settings. Pearls stand on their own with exquisite splendor.”

For over six millennia, pearls were common enough to work as a symbol, but rare enough to be valuable. That is, until they weren’t.

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Pearls can be found anywhere mollusks are found, which is basically everywhere. There are freshwater pearls and seawater pearls, pearls found in rivers, and pearls pulled from bays. Before the early 1900s, most pearls were foraged, created naturally by oysters and mussels. Seawater pearl diving was big business in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar, off the coast of Sri Lanka. Ancient peoples dove for pearls off sections of the Caribbean coasts, along the Pacific coast of Central America, off the coast of Venezuela, and in the Sulu Archipelago. Freshwater pearls were plucked from rivers in Europe, China, and North America, particularly around present-day Ohio and Tennessee; archeologists unearthed approximately 36,000 pearls from a single mound near Anderson Township, Ohio that may have dated back to 300 B.C.E. But pearl diving, whether it was in fresh water or salty, was dangerous. It also smelled rank: sometimes, pearl oysters were dropped in a big pile on shore and left to rot. Maggots would crawl in and out, feasting on the flesh, until nothing remained but shells and, hopefully, some pearls. In most cases, people didn’t eat the mollusks. Their bodies were valueless, as were their lives. The value came from their sublimated pain, their hurt made hard and smooth and round and iridescent.

According to Pearls: A Natural History by Neil H. Landman and Paula M. Mikkelsen, early pearl diving was a fairly standardized affair, whether it took place in 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 more than 30 meters in some areas) collected a few clams, and then surfaced to prepare for another dive. Diving was dangerous, and divers were usually poor and often unfree.” Unfree isn’t just an odd euphemism for enslave — Pearl divers were sometimes slaves, but just as often they were indentured (there were also some free pearl-divers, too). The problems faced by those seeking to make a business of pearls were “not unlike those faced by managers of mines for gems and precious metals and were similarly solved — by limiting the workers’ mobility through indebtedness, government-required labor service, indenture, peonage, or actual slavery,” continues Pearls. “Despite the seeming glamor of pearl diving, [it] involved a great deal of oppression and misery.” Shark attacks weren’t uncommon and were often deadly, and many divers suffered from hyperventilation-induced blackouts (aka nitrogen narcosis) upon surfacing. The longer they stayed underwater, the more they could earn (or the less they were punished) so divers would push their bodies to the limit. Divers who blacked out upon surfacing could be revived, but those who lost consciousness under water were at risk of drowning. While much has changed thanks to the introduction of snorkels and tanks, there are still pearl divers working in parts of the world using more traditional methods. And even with breathing devices, pearl divers sometimes die on the job. In 2012, a young man named Jarrod Hampton was on his second day working for Paspaley Pearling Company off the Australian coast when he became incapacitated by an air embolism. The local water police dive squad reported concerns about the safety and standards on board the company boat, including inadequate training, and lack of proper equipment (such as defibrillators and oxygen-therapy equipment). Paspaley was also paying the divers per shell collected, which gave workers a financial incentive to ignore the early signs of fatigue. After Hampton’s death, the company was fined $60,000 for “failing to provide a safe workplace.” Hampton’s parents have since campaigned for legislation — which his mother “affectionately call[ed] Jarod’s Law” — to address these problems. “My aim was for change,” she said. “So we can know the future for pearl divers is going to be safer.”

Wide-scale pearl cultivation began in Japan in 1916 after an enterprising entrepreneur named Kokichi Mikimoto was granted a patent for his invasive method of pearl growing, which involved inserting a round bead nucleus, made from polished shell and a bit of mantle tissue, into the gonads of an oyster. Others had figured out the secret to cultivating pearls before, but Mikimoto was able to scale this strange discovery in a way no one else had. “For the oysters, at least, it was a painful secret to have revealed,” writes Victoria Finlay in Jewels: A Secret History. “It is ironic that to create the jewel that symbolizes purity you have to commit what might be labeled surgical rape in a more sophisticated organism.” Although it only takes a few seconds to implant the nucleus into the oysters’ organs, it takes them up to three months to recover from the trauma, writes Finlay, and many of these small, homely creatures die.


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According to Finlay, Mikimoto is remembered as a kind man who would have “probably been astonished if anyone had suggested his industry was cruel.” He denied that he was working in pearls to get rich, and insisted that he wanted bring joy to ordinary Japanese citizens. “He believed that everyone, from the poor noodle-seller’s wife to the richest person in Japan, should have the right to see beauty and to own and wear it, and he would begin the process by democratizing pearls,” Finlay writes. Up until this point, pearls in Japan had been worn as badges of extreme wealth, signifiers of power. They were, like pearls often are, a way of telegraphing female power.

Pearl cultivation caught on, and now it’s possible for most people to purchase cultivated pearls. They come in a variety of colors, from gray to gold to pink. But there are still tiers of value, and the most valuable gems are the ones dredged from the bottom of the ocean. Renee Newman, author of Pearl Buying Guide and graduate of the Gemological Institute of America, has researching and writing about pearls for decades. “There is more demand for saltwater pearls,” she explains. “When people from Muslim countries buy pearls, they do not want freshwater pearls. They want pearls with history, pearls from the Arabian gulf.” People in Indonesia tend to buy Indonesian pearls, and Japanese consumers prefer pearls “made in Japan.” Natural pearls command a higher price, Newman explains, despite the fact that, “if you don’t see the difference, there really isn’t one. And you usually can’t see the difference.”

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I do not own a pearl necklace, but I do have a jar on my nightstand that is labeled “Beauty Dust.” This jar is full of nacre. One of the main ingredients in Beauty Dust is “pearl powder,” which is exactly what it sounds like: pulverized pearls.

I am no Cleopatra, drinking a fortune in one swig, but I can stir Beauty Dust into my morning coffee. I can’t help but feel guilty as I drink my muddy potion; it helps to remember that pearl powder is a traditional part of Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine, but only a little. Another part of me hopes for a touch of apple-blossom skin, a sun-lit lilt to my hair. Maybe, some treasonous corner of my mind whispers, maybe it will work.

Daniel Katz runs a holistic healing center. He has been working with traditional Chinese herbs for years, but he tends not to use pearl powder. “It’s too expensive,” he says. “And there are other mineral herbs that have similar properties that are safer to use in different doses.” Pearl powder was once used to calm the body. Practitioners used it to treat seizures and convulsions. “In ancient times, they used it for people who were unsettled. If someone was possessed, or have a fright, where your whole body was on edge, you could use it to weigh the person down,” he explains. Crushed up pearls were also sometimes prescribed for ulcers or hard-to-heal sores. However, Katz notes, “In more modern times, people tend to use it more for skin and beauty.”

In 2016, Vogue ran an article online titled “Could Pearl Powder Save Your Skin?” The piece quoted controversial Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon (who rose to prominence after her truly fantastical 2015 food diary for Elle went viral) and noted that pearl powder has “received the seal of approval from Goop.” The wellness gurus have weighed in, reported the most influential fashion magazine on the planet, and determined that pearl powder is a “beauty superfood” you must know. Some people have claimed that pearl powder, applied topically or ingested, can help make your skin more luminous, make the whites of your eyes whiter, and give you a dewy, youthful glow. Looking into my little tub of dirt-gray dust, I feel skepticism rising in me like bile.

Made primarily from cultivated pearls, the powder is the result of torturing a small animal, extracting the symbol of their pain, and crushing it down until it’s finer than sand. And yet, this process strikes me as particularly appropriate, considering the way we conceive of the pearl. Pearls have always been pain made visible, both in a literal sense and a metaphoric one. We live in a world that frequently asks women to showcase their pain, to polish it nicely for public consumption and present it. Often, female pain is used to help men mature. It’s a common enough trope in literature and television (consider Theon Greyjoy’s slow redemption on Game of Thrones or the comic book trope of “Women in Refrigerators”) but we see this in real life, too. We ask women like Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill to wrap their pain up in a bow, to turn it into something we can use. We ask victims of rape to relive their trauma over and over again in order to be believed. Pain must be made visible, made public, in order for it to be real. We expect pain to happen — it is, as Lili Loofbourow puts it, the “female price of male pleasure” — and we require that it be somehow made of use. It’s an ugly thing, the way we treat both women and mollusks.

And for what? This is the question I wonder. I understand the desire to own a beautiful thing, and the need to surround yourself with shining objects and glittering gems. Beauty deadens the pain of the world a little bit. It mitigates the ugliness of life. Yet it’s worth remembering that your Beauty Dust wasn’t created in a vacuum. It wasn’t made by magic. Chances are, it won’t even work. “There’s no mineral in pearls that can’t be found elsewhere at a much more reasonable price,” doctor and health writer James Hamblin told me in an email. “Every cent spent on pearl powder could’ve gone to provide basic nutrients to any of the world’s 815 million actually malnourished people.” He calls pearl powder a “gross misappropriation of wealth” that will “make a person feel only more empty” and suggests taking the money you were going to spend on that vial of Beauty Dust and funneling it toward a charity.

Of course, it’s too late for me. I’m stuck with this pearl powder. It’s bought and paid for, and aside from drinking it down, I can’t imagine what I might do with it. So for now, I will continue to mix it into my chai tea. I’ll continue to sip away at this pile of dust until it is gone. Maybe pearls will rain from my mouth, maybe my skin will become radiant, maybe I will be blessed with Cleopatra’s beauty. Frankly, I’d rather have my money back.

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Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor based in Maine whose work has appeared in Art New England, Boston magazine, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, Eater, Jezebel, and The New York Times Magazine. She’s also the author of the book Handcrafted Maine.

Editor: Michelle Weber
Factchecker: Matt Giles