Pearls Meanings, History, Symbolism & Legends

Coco Chanel illustration

Pearls have long been more than just jewellery. Their symbolism and meaning stretches across countries and cultures, and has stood the test of time for millennia.

From the ancient Chinese symbolism behind gleaming black pearls to the history behind how they came to be so sought-after, here’s everything you need to know about the meaning of pearls.

History of Pearls

As the world’s oldest gem, pearls have been culturally and spiritually significant for centuries. In truth, they were discovered and revered long before history was even officially written and recorded.  Throughout history, from millennia ago right through to modern day, pearls have been revered. For many of these years, they’ve been worn as adornments or jewellery and have held a special place in the culture of various civilisations and groups.

Ancient History of Pearls

If pearls pre-date written history, how do we know that they’ve been worn as some form of jewellery for millennia? We know this because pearl jewellery was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess that dates as far back 420 BC.

During ancient times, Egyptians were buried with their pearls after they died because they valued them so much. Cleopatra, Egypt’s most famous ruler, is closely tied to the history of pearls too. Legend has it that she took the gem from one of her pearl earrings, dissolved it, and then drank it. Supposedly, this was to show Mark Antony that the entire nation’s wealth could be devoured in a single gulp.

In addition, pearls are mentioned within ancient Chinese history as far back as 2300 BC. During these times, they were presented as gifts to Chinese royalty. In Ancient Roman times, Julius Caesar passed a law stating that only the ruling classes could wear pearls. Talk about a status symbol!

More Recent History of Pearls

Pearls remained valuable and sought-after throughout the centuries. During the Byzantine empire era, for instance, only the emperor was allowed to wear pearls. The sixteenth century in England was known as the Pearl Age, reflecting the prestige carried by pearls at that time.

Pearls have become more accessible since the early 1900s. This coincides with the time that Kokichi Mikimoto, considered the father of the modern cultured pearl industry, made cultured pearls a reality. It was Mikimoto who gave pearl lovers across the globe the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of pearl jewellery without such a hefty price tag.

In modern society pearls are revered as luxury jewellery items and retain the same symbolism and prestige as centuries ago. Even Hollywood portrayals are evidence of this. The iconic 1936 portrait of Coco Chanel is one small example. The black and white portrait featuring six strands of beautiful pearls was the epitome of the luxury that the Chanel brand came to represent.

Pearl Colour Symbolism

Black pearl symbolism was particularly important during early Chinese civilisation. Black pearls symbolised wisdom, and it was believed that they were formed inside the head of a dragon (find out how pearls really form here). Once the dragons were mature, they carried the black pearls between their teeth. So, in early Chinese culture, it was believed that black pearls could only be gained by slaying a dragon.

What does a pink pearl mean? Soft and romantic pink pearls are not only a gorgeous colour. They’re also symbolic of fame, good fortune, energy, success, and romance. White pearls, on the other hand, are symbolic of purity, beauty, and innocence. White pearls also symbolise new beginnings, which is one of the reasons that Akoya pearls are such a popular choice of bridal jewellery.

Other pearl colours and their meanings include:

  • Gold pearls symbolise wealth (just like real gold!)
  • Green pearls symbolise renewal, growth, and nature
  • Purple pearls symbolise nobility, passion, and artistry or creativity
  • Blue pearls symbolise courage, trust, and truth

Spiritual Meaning of Pearls

Pearls aren’t only known for their cultural significance and their beauty, but for their spiritual significance too. There’s no shortage of places and people who hold spiritual beliefs around the meaning of pearls. Pearls command a certain prestige across a variety of religions, civilisations, and belief systems.

For instance, ancient Japanese legend says that pearls were created from the tears of mythical creatures like mermaids. In Persian legend though, pearls are created after storms when a rainbow meets the earth.

The Koran makes specific mention of pearls, and says that they can be found in Paradise. For Hindu and Christian believers, pearls have come to represent purity; hence why they are worn at so many religious wedding ceremonies. The link between pearls and purity goes even deeper though. During the Middle Ages, for example, pearls were sacred objects to Christians. It was even believed that the pearls which covered the Holy Grail were able to purify its water.

Symbolism of Pearls as Gifts

Pearls are a classic choice of gift, whether for someone special or to spoil yourself. If you give or receive a gift of pearls, what exactly do they symbolise?

Throughout history, pearls have always been considered a gift of love. This is yet another reason why they’re still a timeless choice for brides. Pearl gifts have attracted some superstitions in the past though. For instance, it is said that you should always pay for pearls, even if just a few cents! This is because pearls represent tears. That said, tears don’t have to be bad luck! Some believe that for brides, pearls represent the tears she will shed. Because of this, the pearls ward off any future sadness, so that the bride’s life and marriage itself will be happy and free of sorrow.

As another example, the meaning of pearl earrings as a gift would depend on the colour of the pearls, the occasion for which they were gifted, and who they were gifted by. A pair of yellow Mother of Pearl earrings for Mother’s Day could be a gift of appreciation and acknowledgement of her positive nature. A string necklace of green pearls given as a graduation gift could represent good fortune in a new chapter of life. Pink pearls given by a spouse or partner to mark a special occasion would represent love and romance.

So pearls – aside from being beautiful – can also be an incredibly meaningful gift. Browse our range of pearl necklaces, pearl earrings, and pearl bracelets to find the perfect piece. And when you’re giving the gift of luxury pearl jewellery, why not write a sweet note explaining your choice and what it represents to you? The lucky recipient is sure to appreciate every ounce of thought that went into picking the perfect pearl for them.

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