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In the classical Roman world, crowns did not represent monarchy in the same way they later came to during the Middle Ages. Instead crown and wreathes were granted as an award to individuals who had distinguished themselves–much like a trophy or a medal. Strangely, this ancient tradition continues today in the world of beauty pageants. Contests like the Miss America contest, the Miss Universe pageant, and numerous other beauty pageants invariably present a crown to the victor (although the Roman custom has been sadly watered down and winners don’t keep their crown but give it to their successor).
The crowns for the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss World pageant are gaudy affairs made of crystal and synthetic gemstones, however Mikimoto the world’s great manufacturer of cultured pearls also makes pageant crowns and promotional crowns out of their peerless cultured pearls, and some of these headdresses are strangely lovely and striking.
Pearls are formed when the internal mantle tissues of certain shelled mollusks are injured by a predator attack, a parasite incursion, or some other event. In response, the mollusk secretes nacre into the hollow space formed around the injury. The nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and a fibrous protein known as conchiolin. In the past pearls were very expensive and rare (so much so that the real crown of the Netherlands is made with fake pearls manufactured of fishskin and paste). However in the beginning of the twentieth century Japanese entrepreneurs mastered a technique for culturing perfect pearls. The Mikimoto company has been a pearl culturing company and a fine jeweler ever since.
For the last century, Mikimoto has created many beautiful crowns in order to show off its wares. In 1957, Mikimoto created the elaborate Cherry Blossom crown for the U.S. Cherry Blossom Queen of the National Cherry Blossom Festival held in Washington DC, which has celebrated Japanese-American friendship since 1912 (except for a few periods, when the festival was canceled for sundry reasons). Mikimoto also made two demonstration crowns which do not have any purpose other than to show off their art. The crown pictured at the top of this post was crafted by Mikimoto in 1978 to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the discovery of their method of culturing pearls. Another spectacular demonstration crown was made by Mikimo in 1979 based on Byzantine models and designs.
In 2002 Mikimoto constructed the so-called “Phoenix crown” for the Miss Universe pageant out of 500 diamonds and 120 large South Sea and Akoya pearls. The crown was presented to pageant winners between 2002 and 2007 when it was sold to a private owner. Although I object to Miss Universe for false advertising (only denizens of Earth are represented), the large pearls of the pageant crown are certainly very striking.