What Is the Meaning of Pearls?

pearls in wine glass

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Cleopatra is said to have bet Marc Antony that she could prove Egypt was so wealthy and cultivated it would be foolish for Rome to invade. She made her point with dinner a deux that consisted of two goblets of acidic wine and a pair of fabulous pearl earrings. After she dissolved one of the pearls in her goblet and drained it, Marc Antony turned his attention to other conquests. Gleaming, rare and storied pearls have been the stuff of myth and legend throughout history.

A Pearl of Great Price

Pearls are associated with extraordinary wealth and great value. Before the development of cultured pearls, natural pearls could be discovered in mollusks off the coasts of the Americas, Japan, Sri Lanka and India, in the Persian Gulf, the Pacific islands, the Red Sea and in freshwater ponds and rivers in China and the U.S. Pearls were rare, and only the very rich or the very royal could afford them. A pearl with a thick coating of nacre -- the layers of calcium carbonate crystals an oyster or clam deposits around an irritant -- has a deep luster that reflects light crisply; the thicker the nacre, the more the luster glows from within and the more the pearl is worth.

Buddha Nacre

Chinese culture embraces the pearl with its rich history and its role as ornate decorations on imperial robes. The emperor's sweeping yellow robes -- and to a lesser extent, an empress' robes -- were typically embroidered with hundreds to thousands of pearls. The imperial symbol, the dragon, was shown with a large pearl enclosed in flames. The dragon's pearl might be a clap of thunder that rolls across the sky, issued from the dragon's mouth. The pearl could be a Taoist philosophical symbol, referring to change, uncertainty and potential. Once the Chinese perliculture began to farm pearls in earnest, pearl farmers slipped tiny Buddha shapes between the mantle and the shell of freshwater mussels to "grow" pearl Buddhas for a voracious market.

A Rainbow of Pearls

All pearls are not the virginal white that traditionally symbolizes purity, cherished by brides and worn for weddings. The pearl's color comes from its body color, the main hue of the nacre, and overtones, the sheen of pigment over the body color. The most valuable pearls are white body color with overtones of rose or silver. Pearl colors range from white to black, with pink, rose, silver, light cream, medium cream, dark cream, gold, silver, gray, green, lilac or lavender, chocolate and blue varieties. Each color has acquired symbolic meaning over time. Black is associated with dignity; pink and rose are the colors of love; gold pearls mean wealth; blue symbolizes eternity; lilac hints at wisdom, creativity and royalty; pale and peacock greens signal romance; and white reflects innocence, purity and beginnings.

Dreaming of Pearls

If you find a pearl in a dream, it is a treasure that symbolizes personal discovery. The most famous pearls, in museums and private collections, trail stories of fabled romances, spectacular adventures and epic tragedies. The 50-carat "La Peregina," the Pilgrim, was found in the Gulf of Panama in the 16th century and traveled from King Phillip II of Spain to Mary Tudor to the Bonapartes. In 1969, actor Richard Burton gave it to Elizabeth Taylor, his wife, who had the pearl-shaped gem reset in diamonds, rubies and more pearls. The 600-carat Pearl of Asia dates from 17th-century India where it was stolen by the King of Persia, presented to the Chinese Emperor Quianlong, and widely believed to confer good fortune and happiness.