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The Roman Obsession for Pearls

The Roman were extremely fond of pearls, regarding them as the most precious of gems. The most obsessed of them all had to be Julius Caesar. He once paid six thousand gold pieces(nearly $300,000) for a single pearl, which he gave to Servilia, a woman he loved. He even decreed that only Roman aristocracy were allowed to wear pearls. His attempts to conquer Britain were not just for empire building but for access to the natural river pearls that were once abundant in British streams.

Natural pearls were expensive because they were very rare and there were only a few sources. A lot of pearl diving and many, many pearl oysters later before a single pearl, let alone a round one, can be found. Only 1 in 200 million natural pearls will be perfectly round. Trying for a matching pair was a very expensive proposition. A whole string of them would have cost an astronomical price. Just one of the Roman general Vitellius' mother's pearl earrings financed an entire military campaign! (What mothers would do for their children!)
Pearls were to the Romans, a symbol of wealth and prestige. Rich Roman women were described to be dripping with pearls, wearing them even to bed. The picture is a funerary portrait of a woman from Roman Egypt (circa 110-120 CE) - funerary portraits were the only ones to survive from that era. She must have been wealthy as she had a number of pearls in her earrings and necklace.

The Roman Emperor Caligula wore pearl decorated slippers and even gave his favorite horse, Incitatus, a pearl necklace amongst other things. In his case, he was not only obsessed but quite, quite mad.

References

Lois Sherr Dubin (1987). History of Beads : From 30,000 BC to the present. Harry N Abrams Inc.

Victoria Finlay (2006) Jewels: A Secret History. Ballantine Books.

Wikipedia : Julius Caesar

Wikipedia : Caligula

Wikipedia : Fayum mummy portraits

The Private Life of Romans : Dress and Personal Ornaments by Harold Whetstone Johnston

http://www.forumromanum.org/life/johnston_7.html#267

PBS : History of Pearls

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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