Pearls in Human History

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

Ancient North America

Throughout the ages, humans have been enchanted by pearls and the shells of the mollusks that produce them. For example, archaeological evidence indicates that almost 6,000 years ago in the Persian Gulf region, people were sometimes buried with a pierced pearl resting in the right hand.

As ancient trade routes gradually expanded and societies developed across Asia and Europe, pearls became important symbols of wealth, status and religious belief. Some peoples, including the ancient Sumerians, pre-Columbian Americans and Pacific islanders, placed an even higher value on the larger and more easily obtained mother-of-pearl shells. Still a source of widespread fascination, pearls are now admired and worn by more people than ever before.