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.

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.)

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.

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