Natural History of the Precious Stones and Metals – Charles William King


MARGARITA: and later, MARGARITUM: Μαργαρίτη?: Pearl.

THIS word is merely the Greek form of the Sanscrit Maracata, or the Persian Merwerid, and approaches yet more nearly to the original in Μάραγδοϊ, used by Menander (Ath. iii. 94). Theophrastus, however, writes Μαργαρίτη (36) in his brief notice : ” To the number of gems held in estimation belongs that called the Margarites : transparent by its nature ; and they make out of it the necklaces of great price. It is found within a shell-fish resembling the pinna, only smaller.

In size it is as large as the eye of a tolerably big fish.” It seems to have been known from the earliest times to the Asiatic Greeks in consequence of their inter­ course with the Persians, ever the greatest admirers of the Pearl. Homer (H. xiv. 183) describes Juno’s ear-rings as τρίγλψα :* this epithet ” triple-eyed ” can hardly apply to anything but the Pearl, especially as no precious stones are ever alluded to by this poet.

A triplet of pear-shaped pearls forms a distinctive attribute of the antique heads of this goddess.

Three pearls strung one above another, and increasing downwards in size, composed the ear-pendant most admired by the Persian queens, as their portraits on the gems manifest. Athenaeus (iii. 93) gives an admirable account (modem research can offer no better) of the natural history of the pearl-oyster, extracted from the Periplus of India by Androsthenes : ” Of the Strombi, and the Porcellana, and the other shell-fish there are numerous varieties, and very different from those with us.

There is also a great abundance of the Murex and other oysters : but there is one peculiar kind which the natives call Berberi, from out of which comes the gem Margarites. This latter is highly valued throughout Asia, and is sold amongst the Persians and the regions inland for its weight in gold coin (προς χρνσίον).

The appearance of the shell is similar to the Pecten, it is not however striated, but has the outside smooth and furry. Neither has it two ears like the Pecten, but only one. The gem grows within the flesh of the oyster, just as the measles (tubercles) in pork. One kind is extremely yellow, f so as not readily to be distinguished when placed by the side of gold ; another is like silver ; a third perfectly white resembling a fish’s eye.”

Chares of Mytilene, in the 8th Book of his History of Alexander, says : ” It is caught in the Indian Sea, and also off the coasts of Armenia, Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, and resembles the Oyster; but is both bulky and long, containing meat both large and white, and of very agreeable odour.

From which they extract the white bones and call them Margaritae, and make out of them necklaces, and bands for the arms and ankles ; on which both Persians and Medes and all the Asiatics set a much higher value than upon those made of gold.”

But the fullest details, as to both fish and fishery, are to be found in the Description of Parthia by Isidorus of Charace: “In the Persian Sea is a certain island* where great plenty of the pearl-oyster is to be found.

Wherefore rafts of reeds (bamboos) are stationed all around the island, from off which the divers, jumping into the sea to the depth of 20 fathoms, bring up two shells at a time.

They assert that when there are continuous thunderstorms and falls of rain (the Monsoon), the Pinna then breeds more freely, and the  pearl becomes most plentiful and of good size. In winter the shèll-fish are wont to retire into their holes in the deep, but in summer they swim about with their valves gaping wide open by night, but keep them closed by day.

All that grow close to rocks or stones put forth roots, and abiding there fixedly breed the Pearl. They (the Pearls) are born alive, and are nourished through the part attached to the flesh. The latter is firmly fixed to the mouth of the shell, and is furnished with claws and catches food.

This part is exactly like the little crab called the Pinnophylax. From this the fleshy part extends as far as the middle of the shell like a root, along which the Pearls are bred, and grow through the solid part of the shell, and increase in size as long as they remain attached thereto.

But when the fish recedes along the length of its projection, and gently cuts off and severs the pearl from the shell, though it envelopes the pearl it no longer nourishes it, only renders it more polished, more transparent, and purer. The pinna of the deep water produces the most lustrous, and clear, and largest pearl;  that which swims near the surface is spoilt by the rays of the sun, and gives those of bad colour and smaller size.

Those that fish for Pearls run a danger when they thrust their hands straight into the gaping shell, for then it shuts to, and often snaps off their fingers : and some are thus killed immediately. But all who put in the hand transversely, easily pull away the shells from the rocks.”