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Pearls, Power, Wars - Part 4

Pearls in Ancient China

It's hard to imagine, but pearls have been a part of Chinese culture for as long as four thousand years.

Location of Pearls

China's surrounding seas did not boast large quantities of pearl-bearing molluscs; instead their pearls came from freshwater molluscs, (commonly known as freshwater mussels) found in China's rivers and lakes.

Pearls for Status

From the early discovery of pearls in China, they became highly desirable and served as 'vehicles of status and prosperity' - as we have already noted in other cultures.

Pearls for Payment

Ancient Chinese texts ranging across the centuries, starting around 23rd century B.C, note how pearls were used as payment of tribute. This was often from lesser nobles to Emperors. This form of payment was common practice and reveals how the Chinese held pearls in high regard.

Records written by Zhoa Xi Gou, from the Southern Sung era, state: 'the ancient Chinese did not value gold or jade, but valued pearls for they were far brighter.'

Stockpiling Pearls

Because of the value of pearls, noble families from the Warring States period, 475 – 221 B.C, accumulated stockpiles of pearls in order to protect their political and economic future.

During this warring time, some Chinese warriors would carry pearl-studded flags in order to intimidate and distract their opponents.

Adorning with Pearls

Of course pearls were used for more than just currency. They were used in jewellery and ornamentation with the purpose of enhancing one's image.

With this in mind, Empress Wu Zition adorned the exterior of her palace with pearls, apparently a practice that became commonplace amongst the 'well-to-do!'

New Zealand Housing Standards

With all the upgrading of buildings, for earthquake safety standards, we are currently going through in N.Z, I can't imagine that adorning the exterior of one's house with pearls, would be a problem??!!

The Silk Road

During the Quin dynasty, starting 221B.C, China came into contact with the west, via the 'silk roads.'
The western world's demand for silk, jade and ornate objects moved the Chinese into a very prosperous age.

From this prosperity, beautiful Indian and Persian pearls rolled their way into the country and into the lives of the affluent Chinese.

Trail of Pearls

Under the T'ang dynasty, 7th & 8th century A.D, opulence reached great heights.

An example of this was Monarch Mingti. He wore so many pearls and was accompanied by such a lavishly pearl encrusted retinue, that as he passed through streets, he left a tinkling trail of pearls in his wake!

Why are Freshwater Pearls Cheaper?

I have been asked why freshwater pearls are so much cheaper than, for example, Australian South Sea Pearls.

In short, it is due to quality, quantity and cost of production.

Marketable Pearls

China produces billions of fresh water pearls every year.
The majority of them are low grade and 1000's of pearls must be sorted through in order to find one pearl of marketable quality.

Freshwater Pearl Farming

Very little capital or equipment is needed to start or run a freshwater pearl farm.

Requirements: a pond that has nutrient rich water slowly moving through it, mussels and a particular variety of fish.


Tiny baby mussels, called glochidia, need to attach themselves to a fish until they are big enough to drop off and fend for themselves on the floor of a pond or riverbed.

Freshwater Mussel

The freshwater mussel is quite a resilient creature. Up to 32 beads can be placed in a mussel at any one time.

Australian South Sea Oyster

In comparison, the Australian South Sea oyster is quite a delicate creature. It requires a highly skilled technician to surgically implant one bead into its gonads.

The survival of the oyster after this operation is not guaranteed, nor is the acceptance of the bead.

If it survives, it will be regularly cleaned and looked after in a nutrient rich and pristine water farm for two years.

Fully Equipped Ship

Bead insertion and harvesting, often take place on a fully equipped and sophisticated ship. This is due to oyster farms being located out to sea and far away from civilisation.


Everything in life has its place and whilst the magnificent Australian South Sea Pearls are extremely desirable, they are not so readily affordable.

Freshwater pearls fill the gap for those who love pearls and are yet to acquire a stunning strand of South Sea Pearls!

Next Blog

For my next blog on Pearls, Power, Wars, I will tackle the second biggest pearl craze - the Renaissance era.

King Henry the VIII loved pearls and he insisted that his male courtiers wore pearl studs in their ear lobes – as he believed it to be 'most becoming!'


Pearls – Ornament and Obsession

By Kristin Joyce and Shellei Addison


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