With pearls coming from a living animal rather than having to be mined, it's perhaps no surprise they are one of the oldest known gems used for jewellery. There are records of pearls being worn for decoration as far back as 3500 BC across the Middle East and Asia, as well as during the height of the Roman Empire.
Back then, as today, pearl was seen as a luxury. As an expensive item, only the wealthy were able to buy them. With the Romans, it was a matter of status, with the rules of society dictating that only higher ranks were allowed to wear pearls. Similar rules sprang up towards the end of the Middle Ages when some professions were barred by law from wearing pearl jewellery. A famed story saw Cleopatra dissolve an enormous pearl in ‘wine’ (what we would call vinegar) and drink it, apparently as a wager with Roman leader Marc Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on a single meal.
We also know for certain that pearls were being made into necklaces around 2,000 years ago as one was found in the sarcophagus (a ceremonial coffin) of a princess in what is now Iran. Pearls had another boost in popularity when European nations began exploring the Americas and found relatively plentiful supplies to send back home. There have only been two real dips in the popularity of pearls; they fell from grace a little when diamonds first came onto the jewellery scene around three hundred years ago, but soon recovered. There was also a transitional spell in the early 20th century with the introduction of cultured pearls and customers took a while to fall in love with the new style, particularly as prices dropped to levels affordable by ordinary consumers.