The Pearl; first of all precious things.
Pliny the Elder defined it, in his treatises, "first of all precious things". The value of the pearl grew to such an extent that it became a real exchange currency: in the absence of universally recognized coins, pearls became, with the diamond and the emerald , the means to regulate commercial exchanges, to pay for travel or to redeem a life.
For the Stoic philosophers, who pursued virtues of self-control and detachment from earthly things to achieve true moral and intellectual integrity, pearls symbolized power and luxury as they were so expensive that they were the prerogative of only the rich.
And the advent of Christianity was not enough to erase this predilection for the jewel: it continued to adorn church vases and sacred vestments and, in the Middle Ages, in Russia, dresses and boots.
According to Pliny, “pearl” derives from perna (shell that produces mother of pearl) or from perula (small saddlebag) or from pirula (perina). The Arabic name of the pearl is giohar or gioman sciazz; the pink pearl is called nard. In Greece it was called margarita from the Sanskrit mangala (precious stone) or hārā. The ancients, in fact, considered it such, unaware of its animal nature.
Today we know perfectly well what a pearl is and how it is born : calcareous layers that are deposited around a parasite or an irritating particle, produced by the pearl oyster, pinctada or margheritifera. It lives in warm seas with the exception of the Unio species which prefers fresh waters. There are spherical or oval pearls, regular or shapeless, inside the oyster or attached to the shell (bladder pearls), white, black, pink, blue, yellow. The pearl is composed of calcium carbonate. Often it is disfigured by defects such as a surface that is too flattened, a yellowish color or, on the contrary, an excessive whiteness, a lack of weight, a lack of shine or various inequalities of the surface.
The use of the pearl in Rome, according to the Latin writer Pliny the Younger, is mainly attributable to Pompey who in 63 BC won the king of the Parthians Mithridates and brought back to Rome an exceptional booty of rings, bracelets, earrings and jewels decorated with pearls, making them all the rage ever since.
The pearl was much loved in Rome, so much so that it reached real ridicule: Pompeo had a portrait made entirely of pearls; Nero had the beds covered with them, not to mention the Lunch offered by Elagabalus, which lasted for ten days and saw, as courses, rice with pearls, green beans with amber, peas with gold and, maximum refinement, pearls dissolved in wine. The idea was not entirely his: Queen Cleopatra, a famous seductress, who was not out of stock with jewels, used to toast to Marc'Antonio's health and squandered thousands of sesterces. But not happy, as a last whim, a tomb covered with pearls.
The winners of the sports games received pearls as gifts. Women were naturally greedy too; but since the larger pearls had become the badge of the prostitutes, the well-wives adopted pendants made up of smaller specimens, called precisely "the pearls of respectability". Widespread in Imperial Rome were cups decorated with pearls.