Monday, 26 May 2008

Vanity to veneration

Even in its collapse the Roman empire has left us with its enthusiasm for the oysters. The trade in edible oysters may have collapsed, but the caches of pearls that the royal houses of Rome had assembled were ransacked and carried away by conquering Goths and scattered among the territorial lords of northern and western Europe bringing with them always their sense of value, treasure and importance.

From here, in the dark ages, the pearl found another expression, this time more pious as part of the religious jewellery of the first missals and manuscripts, adorning the covers of sacred bibles and texts …the pearl had passed from an item of vanity to veneration and became a symbol of all that was great in religion and could be found increasingly on altars, in sacred vessels, and as part of priestly sacraments.

For the ancient and more recent worlds the pearl had a singular value. It was natural and it was traded without artifice. Although diamonds would be known from the 8th century it was only after 1450 AD that jewellers understood how to cut and craft it and other gems and started to make them popular. Before that the pearl reigned without competition as an equal, even possibly of greater value than gold or silver.