Sunday, 19 March 2023


One of my favourite pairs of earrings are a simple set of pearls. I have worn them pretty much every day since 2016 when I received them as a gift. What is it about pearls that makes them so appealing? I am certainly not alone in this. 

A simple search will show you a vast array of pearls being used for their ornamental value in cultures from all over the world. I suppose the best answer to why they are appealing is just that they are

If you make your way to Paris, France and happen to visit the Louvre's Persian Gallery, do take a boo at one of the oldest pearl necklaces in existence — the Susa necklace. It hails from a 2,400-year-old tomb of long lost Syrian Queen. It is a showy piece with three rows of 72 pearls per strand strung upon a bronze wire. 

A queen who truly knew how to accessorize

I imagine her putting the final touches of her outfit together, donning the pearls and making an entrance to wow the elite of ancient Damascus. The workmanship is superb, intermixing pure gold to offset the lustre of the pearls. It is precious and ancient, crafted one to two hundred years before Christ. Perhaps a gift from an Egyptian Pharaoh or from one of the Sumerians, Eblaites, Akkadians, Assyrians, Hittites, Hurrians, Mitanni, Amorites or Babylonian dignitaries who sued for peace but brought war instead. 

Questions, good questions, but questions without answers. So, what can we say of pearls? We do know what they are and it is not glamorous. Pearls form in shelled molluscs when a wee bit of sand or some other irritant gets trapped inside the shell, injuring the flesh. As a defensive and self-healing tactic, the mollusc wraps it in layer upon layer of mother-of-pearl — that glorious shiny nacre that forms pearls. 

They come in all shapes and sizes from minute to a massive 32 kilograms or 70 pounds. While a wide variety of our mollusc friends respond to injury or irritation by coating the offending intruder with nacre, there are only a few who make the truly gem-y pearls. 

These are the marine pearl oysters, Pteriidae and a few freshwater mussels. Aside from Pteriidae and freshwater mussels, we sometimes find less gem-y pearls inside conchs, scallops, clams, abalone, giant clams and large marine gastropods.

Pearls are made up mostly of the carbonate mineral aragonite, a polymorphous mineral — the same chemical formula but different crystal structure — to calcite and vaterite, sometimes called mu-calcium carbonate. These polymorphous carbonates are a bit like Mexican food where it is the same ingredients mixed in different ways. Visually, they are easy to tell apart — vaterite has a hexagonal crystal system, calcite is trigonal and aragonite is orthorhombic.

As pearls fossilize, the aragonite usually gets replaced by calcite, though sometimes by vaterite or another mineral. When we are very lucky, that aragonite is preserved with its nacreous lustre — that shimmery mother-of-pearl we know and love.  

Molluscs have likely been making pearls since they first evolved 530 million years ago. The oldest known fossil pearls found to date, however, are 230-210 million years old. 

This was the time when our world's landmass was concentrated into the C-shaped supercontinent of Pangaea and the first dinosaurs were calling it home. In the giant ancient ocean of Panthalassa, ecosystems were recovering from the high carbon dioxide levels that fueled the Permian extinction. Death begets life. With 95% of marine life wiped out, new species evolved to fill each niche.  

While this is where we found the oldest pearl on record, I suspect we will one day find one much older and hopefully with its lovely great-great grandmother-of-pearl intact.