Romans prized these jewels more than diamonds

Scorned by moralists and coveted by the nobility, the 'gems of the sea' became Rome’s must-have extravagance in the first century B.C.

Photograph by CHRISTIE’S IMAGES/SCALA, FLORENCE
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Two women peruse the wares in a jeweler’s shop in Pompeii. 19th-century oil painting by Ettore Forti
Photograph by CHRISTIE’S IMAGES/SCALA, FLORENCE

Satirical Roman writer Martial, remarking upon imperial Rome’s captivation with pearls, described a woman named Gellia who “swears, not by . . . our gods or goddesses, but by her pearls. These she embraces; these she covers with kisses; these she calls her brothers and sisters; these she loves more ardently than her two children. If she should chance to lose these, she declares she could not live even an hour.”

Martial’s words would be the first of many commentaries from moralists and satirists on the Roman nobility’s fashion obsession with pearls. In the beginning of the first century B.C. these precious baubles became the ultimate symbol of wealth, power, and prestige in Rome. Many ancient civilizations, from India and Israel to Assyria and pharaonic Egypt, had long considered the pearl a precious gem. Pearls were presented as gifts to Chinese royalty as early as 2300 B.C., and a fragment of pearl jewelry found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess from about 420 B.C. indicates that they were also worn as adornment. (See also: The brutal beheading of Cicero, last defender of the Roman Republic.)

Treasures from the East

The Roman pearl craze began after Pompey the Great’s military campaigns in Asia Minor and Armenia (66-63 B.C.). During Pompey’s triumphal return to Rome in 61 B.C., his procession included 33 crowns encrusted with pearls, a pearl-decorated shrine, and a portrait of the general made entirely of pearls. Recollecting the latter treasure, writer and philosopher Pliny the Elder scoffed: “To think that it is of pearls, Great Pompey, those wasteful things meant only for women . . . which you yourself cannot and must not wear, that your portrait is made!” The extravagant display of this precious stone of the East proved the success of Pompey’s conquering armies and helped elevate his profile as a strong commander. The pearls themselves—“the richest merchandise of all,” as Pliny wrote—filled the coffers of Rome’s treasury, their abundance strengthening its economy. Rome’s elite fell in love with the gemstones, and a fashion trend was born.

The pearl trade

This unprecedented interest in pearls gave rise to a rich trade with the four pearl-producing regions known in antiquity: the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, India and Sri Lanka, and some areas of China. The pearl trade in Rome began around the end of the first century B.C. and the beginning of the first century A.D., when the trade route with the East through Egypt was established. Trade brought pearls of varying qualities, sizes, and colors to Rome: small reddish pearls from the Black Sea, large marble-shaded pearls from Greece, and golden ones from Britain. But the most highly prized pearls, which were a brilliant, shiny white, came from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. (See also: The rise of eco-friendly pearl farming.)

The Romans referred to pearls by the Greek name margarita, and differentiated between various kinds. The largest and most beautiful were called unios; pear-shaped pearls were called elenchi; and when clustered together so that they gently jingled with movement—attracting attention with the noise—they were called crotalia, or castanets.

Under the emperors Claudius and Nero, the pearl trade focused on a few ports on the Arabian coast, which became intermediaries between India and the West. Goods were shipped from the Arabian ports to Egypt’s capital of Alexandria, where they were kept in warehouses and then redistributed throughout the Mediterranean. The pearl trade also benefited from the Roman Empire’s extensive network of well-kept roads.

Merchants who specialized in pearls were known in Rome as margaritarii, although this word also may have been used to describe anyone connected with the gem, from exporters, jewelers, and pearl-setters to pearl fishermen and guards who protected the precious stones. The margaritarii joined together to protect their interests in guilds or associations.

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Showing off a pearl necklace, a woman displays her collection of jewels. Fresco from the Palace of Constantine in Trier. Fourth century A.D. Episcopal Museum, Trier

Eighteen inscriptions found in Rome mention the profession of margaritarius. Most of these historical markings have been discovered around the Via Sacra in the Roman Forum, the center of day-to-day life in ancient Rome. Such inscriptions suggest that a select group of margaritarii operated from one of Rome’s best known and busiest streets, which served as the city’s commerce nucleus for the luxury trade.

Wealth of riches

Pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and affluent. Julius Caesar ruled that women beneath a certain rank could not wear them, specifying that they were meant for “those of a designated position and age.”

Women from the imperial aristocracy wore them in a variety of ways: as earrings, in necklaces of up to three strands, on crowns, and on hair combs. Pearls were sewn onto dresses and even onto the straps of their sandals. Pliny penned his admonishment that pearls had surpassed mere adornment: “It is not sufficient for them to wear pearls, but they must trample and walk over them . . . the women wore pearls even in the still hours of the night, so that in their sleep they might be conscious of possessing the beautiful gems.”

Roman philosopher Seneca echoed Pliny’s criticism of such pretension when describing the new earring style: “[T]he lobes of our ladies have attained a special capacity for supporting a great number. Two pearls alongside of each other, with a third suspended above, now form a single earring! The crazy fools seem to think that their husbands are not sufficiently tormented unless they wear the value of an inheritance in each ear!” Indeed, earrings of this period were often so large and heavy that the purpose of a female hairdresser, known as an auricula ornatrix, was to treat earlobes injured or infected by the earrings. Even the statues of the time reflected the Romans’ fondness for bejeweled earlobes. The “Venus de’ Medici,” a sculpture from the first century B.C. of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, has pierced ears.

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Crotalia earring made of gold, pearls, garnets, and glass. Third century

Pearls became a symbol of imperial power and were lavishly displayed on bed covers, couches, and crowns. A pearl-setter was among the many permanent staff who worked for Emperor Augustus, an indication of the jewel’s importance in the ruler’s household. (Learn about Vestal Virgins, the most powerful priestesses in Rome.)

The pearl featured prominently in accounts of Emperors Caligula and Nero, both infamous for their extraordinary excesses. Caligula is said to have not only bestowed the rank of consul upon his favorite horse but also decorated Incitatus with a pearl necklace.

Echoing the tale told of Cleopatra, Caligula’s libations were even said to include the prized gem, as he drank “pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar.” Nero, with his pearl-encrusted scepter and throne, adorned the actors in his theater with similarly decorated masks and scepters for his viewing pleasure. (See also: Inside the decadent love affair of Cleopatra and Mark Antony.)

Historian Suetonius wrote that Vitellius, a first-century Roman general (and later one of the short-lived successors of Nero), financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings. A luxury known to only a few, pearls occupied the “very highest position among valuables.” This jewel of the sea—matching Pliny’s description of Caligula’s pearl-bedecked third wife, Lollia Paulina—“glittered and shone like the sun” at the height of the Roman Empire.