Pearls have been worn throughout history – there is evidence as early as 1000BC of trade with the gems, and the many natural oyster beds in the Persian Gulf meant that they were important in ancient Arab cultures.

They were sought after by kings, queens, Maharajas and Chinese Emperors, and over the centuries they have been an emblem of love, purity, fertility – as well as authority and power.

“Pearls are a global phenomenon, and like no other gem,” says jewellery historian and curator Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. “They were a girl’s and a man’s best friend for many centuries. It’s only today that we consider pearls not appropriate for men to wear.”

The discovery of the cultured pearl in Japan was a turning point, and the gemstones became more affordable. Strings of gleaming pearls were worn by flappers in the Roaring 20s, then popularised by Coco Chanel in the 1930s, and later by Jackie Kennedy – along with a variety of glamorous Hollywood stars.

Now the pearl is enjoying a revival in contemporary jewellery design.

Video by Sylvia Smith

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