You may think this weird, but pearls do indeed get dissolved by a simple chemical called vinegar. Many historians say pearls did not dissolve in vinegar, and the whole story was made up by Pliny, who was the one who first recorded this legend. One thing we can gather from the whole story is that vinegar is an excellent method of telling whether or not a pearl is genuine.
Pearls melt in vinegar. Pearls are made of calcium carbonate and dissolve in acetic acid. Vinegar contains acetic acid. So pearls dissolve in vinegar. However, the acid concentration of vinegar is very low. So a pearl must be submerged for a long time before it finally dissolves.
While my experiments were sufficient to convince me the legend is a myth, I can say vinegar is bad for pearls. Nowadays, you can even find videos on YouTube where people perform experiments with pearls in vinegar. What all of these experiments demonstrate is that if you put a pearl into a glass of vinegar, it will dissolve – but only very slowly. You need to wait for a couple of days to fully dissolve.
So, Cleopatra would not be able to just drop the pearl into the glass of vinegar, shake it, and watch it dissolve, just like Alka-seltzer in water. If you grind a pearl first (which is easily done using a pestle and mortar), and then drop the pearl in vinegar, the powder dissolves within minutes, even in cold vinegar.
Vinegar Can Damage a Pearl
While the vinegar may cause some damage to the pearl, vinegar does not necessarily dissolve it the way that aspirin does. Because the solution is supersaturated, the individual pearls do not dissolve, but rather will grow, because the pearl’s mother will crystallize on their surfaces.
Since calcium carbonate is the pearl component, if you mix it with acetic acid, which is a major component in vinegar, this results in water with calcium acetate and carbon dioxide, which melts the pearl. Calcium carbonate plus acetic acid from vinegar in water produces calcium acetate water and carbon dioxide, for you chemistry fans out there.
The calcium carbonate pearls and vinegar acetic acid cause a reaction, which results in bubbles appearing at the surface. You can find a lot of substances such as pearls, which contain calcium carbonate, dissolved in an acidic solution like vinegar. Taking a grain of salt from an ancient source, classicalist Prudence Jones at Montclair State University in New Jersey has been experimenting with vinegar and a five-carat pearl to see whether a concentration of acetic acid is enough to dissolve calcium carbonate.
About ten years ago, classicalist Prudence Jones conducted an experiment where she used a wine vinegar solution that contained approximately 5 percent acetic acid to successfully dissolve a five-carat pearl, which weighs about one gram.
The Cleopatra Legend of the Pearl
She crushed one of the larger pearls out of a pair of earrings, dissolved it in a cup of wine (or vinegar), and then consumed the cup. At the dinner, Cleopatra took out one of her earrings with a pearl, and, ordering a cup of strong vinegar, Cleopatra dropped the pearl in. Cleopatra took one earring and dropped the pearl into the vinegar, then, as it was going to be wasted, she ingested it, wrote Roman naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, 23-79 AD.
One of the best-known stories about her I have yet addressed, however, is that once, she dissolved in the vinegar a vintage pearl that was worth tens of millions of sesterces, was used as a party trick to impress her lover, Marcus Antonius. The vintage pearl that was worth tens of millions of sesterces, impressed her lover, Marcus Antonius.
One of the best-known stories of pearls ever told is the story told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History of Pliny, Book 2. There is a famous story told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, in which Cleopatra drinks the largest pearl in the world, which is dissolving into vinegar, as part of a wager he makes with Mark Antony.
The largest pearl in the world, which is dissolving into vinegar, as part of a wager he makes with Mark Antony. It helps to know that Cleopatra was far from the last person that ancient Romans told a story of the dissolution of pearls in vinegar. Even leaving aside the improbably long waiting period, it is virtually certain that Cleopatra did not dissolve the pearl in vinegar to impress her lover Marcus Antonius.
The Roman Legend of the Dissolving Pearl
The story that someone did dissolve a pearl in vinegar and drink it is attested for the first time in the works written by Cleopatra’s contemporary, the Roman poet Horace (lived 65-8 BC). The reason why we can be certain about dissolution is that the accusation that someone would dissolve precious pearls in vinegar is a centuries-old canard the Ancient Romans commonly told of anybody they wanted to paint as licentious and morally decadent.
I have a difficult time believing that wealthy men of the 1st century BC were going around dissolving extraordinarily expensive pearls in vinegar for no other reason than to have a good time. I would never hear of the case where the vinegar was splashed on somebody’s strands of pearls, then they were melting down their necks, just like Wicked Witch in the West.
Harris Rackham, in his translation of Pliny from the 40s, wrote No vinegar of this sort exists which would melt pearls. Antony found that it was not acidic enough to dissolve pearls, at least not fast enough for it to affect him. Jones found a 5 percent solution of acetic acid, the same concentration as the white vinegar sold at supermarkets today, took 24-36 hours to dissolve a pearl that weighed about a gram. By Cleopatra’s instructions, servants placed before her a single vessel filled with vinegar, a liquid of the savageness and power of which the pearl could be dissolving.
The direct from the ears to the vinegar, and then through the lavatory, the process either did not occur, Cleopatra fixed the wager, by allowing the pearls to be softer for one to two days before wearing them to dinner, or Cleopatra allowed the vinegar to simmer down before dropping the pearls.