ABOUT PEARLS IN HISTORY: Or Why The Indians Sided With The French During The French & Indian War
Pearls, Tennessee, Indians, and What It Was About
I live in Tennessee, which has a special connection to freshwater pearls. Four and five hundred years ago, when French explorers came down through Canada and down the Mississippi River, they discovered that the Mississippi Indians in Tennessee collected pearls embedded in the local mussels which lived along the banks of the Tennessee River. The explorers traded for these pearls, and shipped them back to Europe, where they were reserved for royalty only, and were called “Royal Pearls”.
Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were rare and expensive. A jewelry item that today might be taken for granted, say, a 16-inch strand of perhaps 50 pearls, often cost between $500 and $5,000 at the time. Pearls are found in jewelry and mosaics as far back as Egypt, 4200 B.C. At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
While Tennessee freshwater pearls are available to anyone today, many royal families in Europe continue to import these pearls. It is the custom, among many royals, and dating back to the time of these French explorers, to have a freshwater pearl sewn into their undergarments. The belief is, if the pearl touches your skin, you will continue to be prosperous and wealthy.
Pearls are harvested in both fresh water (from mussels) and sea water (from oysters). The pearls created by both types of mollusks are made of the same substance, nacre. Nacre is secreted by the mantle tissues of the mollusk. This secretion hardens. When the hardened nacre coats the inside of the shell, we call this Mother of Pearl. When the nacre forms around some irritant, forming a ball-like structure, these become Pearls. Saltwater pearls typically have some kind of bead nucleus around which the nacre forms and hardens. Freshwater pearls typically do not. Besides Tennessee, other major sources of pearls are Japan and China.
Cultured pearls are real pearls produced by inserting a piece of mussel shell (or some other irritant) into the tissue of a mollusk. The mollusk coats this with nacre, creating the pearl. The more coats of nacre the mollusk produces, the more lustrous and pricey the pearl becomes. Mikimoto developed this process in Japan in the early 1900's.
So, if you take your imagination back to 1763, and look at the United States and Canada mostly East of the Mississippi River, you see French traders and Indians in a partnership of buying and selling freshwater pearls and Czech glass beads and beaver pelts and guns and other supplies. The British are only concerned with kicking the Indians off their land.
And so it went….
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