Pearls of Antiquity main content.

Pearls of Antiquity

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

The Roman and Byzantine Empires

Ancient Middle Eastern cultures were apparently the first to value pearls and pearl shells. Interest in pearls later spread to the Mediterranean; in Persia, the gems were said to be worth their weight in gold. By 100 B.C., the Mediterranean enthusiasm for pearls had become a craze, and pearl-adorned objects have been found at archaeological sites across the Roman Empire, from Syria to North Africa and northern France. According to some historians, one of the reasons Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 B.C. was to obtain freshwater pearls.

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Segment of a necklace Natural pearls, emerald, goldRoman Empire, A.D. 100-200
The British Museum, London GR 1872, 6.4.1014 Jewellery 2876

Jewelry recovered from Roman Empire sites reveals a taste for combining pearls with emeralds or emerald plasma (chalcedony) and gold. Jewelry fashions at this time were consistent throughout the far-flung Empire.