Among the most colorful tales in the pearl world is that of a legendary banquet, where Cleopatra bet Marc Antony that she could host the most expensive dinner in history. According to author and noted pearl expert Fred Ward, in his book, Pearls, the queen hoped to impress Antony and the Roman Empire he represented with the extent of Egypt’s wealth. In her clever attempt to do so, she crushed one large pearl from a pair of earrings and dissolved it in a goblet of wine (or vinegar), before gulping it down.
“Astonished, Antony declined his dinner—the matching pearl—and admitted she had won,” Ward writes.
The famous story of Cleopatra’s pearls is told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. Pliny, often called the world’s first gemologist, estimated the two pearls’ worth at 60 million sestertii, or roughly $28.5 million in today’s dollars.
Cleopatra was often seen as the epitome of Luxuria, a medieval vice pictured as a bejewelled naked women, the embodiment of extravagant lust. It was her association with pearls which was the real reason for her early notoriety as Luxuria.
As Pliny related,
“The first place and the topmost rank among all things of price is held by pearls … Their whole value lies in their brilliance, size, roundness, smoothness and weight … There have been two pearls that were the largest in the whole of history; both were owned by Cleopatra … they had come down to her through the hands of the kings of the East.”