Pearls pop up in early history as a highly coveted gem, revered by rulers of the ancient civilizations of China, India and Rome. According to Xhao Xi Gou, a writer of the Sung Period, the ancient Chinese "did not value gold or jade, but valued pearls for they were far brighter". In ancient China, pearls were used not only for adornment, but also as currency. They served to enhance their owner's image, imparting an air of authority and grace.
In Rome, pearls were assigned such tremendous value that entire military campaigns could be financed on the sale of a single pearl. The Romans ranked pearls as their most precious commodity. The Romans sent so much gold to India in exchange for pearls that a serious trade imbalance developed and the Roman economy weakened significantly. It was only a matter of time before Rome's pearl decadence contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.
Ancient Hindu writings refer to pearls as bringing longevity and prosperity. The writings also tell an ancient story of Krishna who brought pearls to give to his daughter as a gift on her wedding day. This Hindu story is one of the earliest known accounts of pearls and the wedding experience.
The ancient Greeks also believed pearls should be a part of the wedding. They thought pearls would bring love and all guests of the wedding were adorned in pearls. Pearls were sacred wedding gems given as gifts and the word "pearl" became highly associated with "love."
Religious writings also contain references to pearls. Early Christian writings, in conjunction with the Virgin Mary and Jesus, speak of the value of pearls. The famous metaphor found in the Bible warns of casting pearls before swine, comparing the gems to something of value to be held close and not flaunted or shared with those who are unworthy or unappreciative of such beauty.
The Spanish used to force slaves to dive for pearls along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts of Central America. French explorers found Native Americans wearing pearls. As crusaders, conquerors and Christians traveled around the world, so did the beauty and rarity of pearls. Because of the popularity of pearls from 1524-1658 it was known as the pearl age in Europe.
In more recent history, Iowa used to be the center of trade for mother of pearl buttons until World War II when newly invented plastic took over from the quality pearl buttons.