Legends of Pearls are as old as history itself. In Persian mythology pearls were regarded as the “tears of the gods”. The Chinese believed that pearls were jewels in the sea and grew by the power of the moonlight. In ancient Rome, they were a gift from heaven, rising to the surface of the water to catch the morning dew. If the dew was clear, the pearl was white, while mucky dew produced darker shades of brown and gray. Roman women wore pearls in their hair, sewn on clothes and shoes, and as jewelry because pearls were attributed to the Venus Goddess of Beauty. The Roman Queen Lollia Paulina owned pearls worth 40 million sesterces, the equivalent of $1,600.00. Queen Cleopatra destroyed one of her valuable pearl earrings in a glass of wine for the “most expensive meal” in order to seduce the Roman commander Marc Antony. Queen Elizabeth I owned more than 3,000 dresses and 80 wigs embroidered with pearls.
In the sixteenth century a large and perfect pearl was discovered in the Gulf of Panama and brought to Spain by King Ferdinand V. He presented it to his wife Mary Tudor of England as a wedding gift. It soon became an emblem of royalty, worn by generations to come. This seductive lore of the eternal pearl continues with our own 20th century royalty. Elizabeth Taylor now owns that perfect pearl, the world’s most famous. Named “La Peregrina”, Richard Burton purchased it for her on Valentines Day 1969 for $37,000. And who can forget Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, with long strands of pearls draping over her little black dress. Fashion queen Coco Channel was the first to introduce pearls as a fashion accessory for everyday wear, pearls were her signature design. House of Channel carries on the tradition with the latest runway fashions today.
The oldest pearl jewelry is more than 4,300 years old. Found during the excavation of the king’s palace at the Persian capital of Susa and currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The ancient reliefs show Assyrian and Persian kings with single pearls woven into their long beards. Centuries later pearls were introduced to Greece by Alexander the Great. In the thirteenth century Marco Polo visited the coasts of India & the Persian Gulf and recorded the work of the local pearl divers. He described them as being laden with weights and lowered to the seabed to gather pearl oysters while holding their breath.
The first attempt at pearl cultivation was by the Chinese in the eleventh century. However, It was not until 1913 that German zoologist Friedrich Alverdes established the exact scientific process by which a pearl is created. He discovered that pearls are formed when a foreign body such as a grain of sand penetrates the shell of the oyster. In order to isolate the irritant the mollusk encases it with layer upon layer of a substance called nacre, or calcium carbonate. As each layer of nacre is added the “pearl” becomes more iridescent. The beautiful and lustrous pearls we see in fine jewelry stores spend 6-8 years in an oyster.
A Japanese carpenter named Mise started pearl culturing experiments in 1904 and became the first person to develop a spherical cultured pearl, but never achieved a patent. In 1907, a zoologist named Nichikawa also began producing spherical cultured pearls. Upon his death his father-in-law, the noodle seller Mikimoto, took over the culturing gave the new firm his namesake. Over the years the Mikimoto company has made great contributions to the development of the pearl industry. Because Mikimoto was long believed to be the originator of cultured pearls, the term Mikimoto Pearls is used incorrectly as a term for cultured pearls. Cultured pearls are produced from the Akoya oyster, so the term “Akoya Pearl” refers to a saltwater cultured pearl. In 1921 the cultured spherical pearl became available to the general public and the entire pearl industry changed as pearls were now an affordable accessory.
The method of culturing a pearl is to open the valves of a pearl oyster & insert a bead of mother of pearl shell. The oyster is returned to the water, after a few years the oyster will have covered the bead with its nacre. The longer the oyster is in the water the thicker the nacre of the pearl becomes which will make the pearl more lustrous and valuable. The only true way to detect a natural pearl from a cultured one is to x-ray the nucleus.
Pearls are cultivated all over the world. The Australian waters produce the largest pearls in white, grey and golden colors. These pearls grow to over 20mm in size and can be round or baroque in shape. South Sea Pearls are the most expensive and rare cultured pearls. They are golden in color and almost perfectly round. The term South Sea Pearl refers to the waters off the coasts of Burma, Indonesia and French Polynesia in addition to Australia.
Pearls from the waters of Tahiti are known as Black Tahitian Pearls, but the true colors are more of a grey to dark gunmetal blue color with overtones of green, pink, lavender and brown. The colors are natural and are not to be confused with dyed black pearls. A lustrous black pearl should look metallic with very few to no blemishes. Tahitian pearls range in sizes of 7mm to 30mm and shapes vary from round to baroque, round being the most valuable.
The Japanese Akoya cultured pearls are round and oval to semi-baroque in shape. The natural colors are white, rose, & light-golden. The pearl size ranges from 2mm-12mm.
Pearls that have not been cultured and found in the oceans at random are called Natural Pearls. The finest natural pearls are Oriental Pearls from the Persian Gulf. Other natural pearl fisheries are the Gulf of Manaar, The Red Sea, the coasts of India & Australia, the South Sea islands of Micronesia and Polynesia, Japan, coastal waters of Venezuela, the Gulf of Mexico and along the Pacific coast of Mexico. The Gulf of Panama gave the world the beautiful “La Peregrina.”
Any shelled mollusk can produce a pearl of sorts, but only those that have a shell with a mother of pearl lining can form lustrous pearls fit for jewelry. The saltwater pearl oyster falls into the latter category and is known scientifically. Filibranchia, of the class known as Lamellibranchia. The generic name is Pinctada, or more commonly known as the Akoya. The second most important saltwater producing mollusk is the giant conch, Strombus gigas. The conch pearls produced from this shell vivid pink in color and extremely rare. Orange pearls have a similar appearance have been found in the Malaysian, Myna Marian & Vietnamese waters.
Natural Freshwater Pearls are found in rivers across the world, from exotic locales to the heartland of the United States. Some of the best quality are from the Mississippi river. These pearls vary in baroque shapes as wings, dog’s teeth & flower petals that have lent their interesting designs to unique jewelry in the past and present. Tiffany introduced a freshwater pearl jewelry collection in 1857 that started the popularity in America for the odd-shaped pearls. President Lincoln bought Mary Todd Lincoln a necklace, earrings, brooch & bracelet of fresh water pearls from Tiffany’s in 1861 to wear for their inaugural ball.
Long strands of pearls were iconic in the roaring twenties as hip women of all ages celebrated the decade of decadence. Pearls were a must have for stylish and chic ladies of the time. As the rich got richer the money spent on the luxury increased. According to Tiffany’s documents in 1925 Mr. Wannamaker, following in the tradition of ancient Rome two thousand years before him, bought an opera length strand of 79 pearls for $228,800.00 and in September he returned for an even larger pearl strand for $304,480.00. Not to be outdone, Mrs. Marshall Field outspent him when she dropped $60,000.00 on a single pearl—possibly the most money ever paid for a pearl. When these lucrative times came to an end after the 1929 crash, pearls held their value during the depression.Prior to pearl cultivation pearls were valued highly because of their scarcity. The famous story of the value of pearls is often told about Mrs. Morton Plant who in 1910 sold her fabulous mansion at 52nd street & 5th ave. in New York to Cartier for a strand of pearls worth $1 million. Mrs. Plant traded her mansion to Cartier for the strand of pearls enabling Cartier to occupy the location that they still maintain today.
The first cultured freshwater pearls were originally from Lake Biwa in Japan in 1925. They were beautiful large baroque pearls with a smooth surface and a fine luster. Unfortunately today the production of Biwa pearls is not possible because of the polluted waters of Lake Biwa.
The Chinese cultured pearls have become incredibly popular since 1991. The overall quality of Chinese pearls have been of a poorer quality due to overcrowding of mussel in the lakes which thereby deprive the mussel of essential nutrients for ideal growth. Because of this, Chinese pearls are a less expensive priced pearl. However, in recent years the Chinese have been producing pearls of a higher quality, rounder, a smoother surface, and with more luster. Chinese pearls come in a variety of colors ranging from white, peach, lavender, pink and peach. Chinese pearls having deep, vivid colors of brown, gold, green and black are dyed; these are not natural pearl colors.
Pearls are graded according to size, color, luster, surface blemishes and shapes. Some pearl companies will have their own system of grading. For example: using AAAA for a fine pearl to A for low quality pearl. There is however no universal set of grading standards and the A system can be very subjective. Buying pearls from a Gemologist is recommended.
The size of pearls varies depending on the type of oyster, the location of the culture farm and the water temperature. The worldwide standard for measuring pearls is millimeters. Pearls are sold based on the “momme”, which equals 3.75 grams weight. Momme indicates thicker nacre; therefore a more valuable lustrous pearl when measuring pearls of the same millimeter size. Pearl sizes generally range from 2mm to 20mm in increments of 1/2 mm.
Pearl color will depend on the type of oyster and origin of the pearls. Akoya pearls tend to be a white with a pink overtone. Freshwater pearls are now available in a rainbow of colors from China. Natural colored pearls have the most value. Freshwater pearls grow naturally in a variety of body colors of white, pink, peach, yellow, lavender, gray; these colors will be a soft hue, while very vivid, deep and even color usually indicates that the pearls are dyed.
The luster depends on the thickness of the nacre. If the nacre is very thin the pearl will look chalky and dull. If the nacre is thick a pearl will look metallic and even have its own reflection. It is best to view pearls in natural light. Many pearls will also look iridescent. For example, a Tahitian grey pearl may have a hue of lavender & pink colors at the same time. A pearl that is very lustrous evenly over the entire surface is the most valuable.
If the pearl is not completely smooth and has slight nicks, wrinkles, scratches, cracks, pits, dimples, bumps in the nacre they will appear as surface blemishes. Patches of missing nacre will look like discolorations. The smoother the pearl’s surface, the more valuable.
The perfectly round pearl is the most valuable of all. The Japanese Akoya pearl is the most round. There are many oval shaped pearls that to the eye may look round but the price of the pearl is considerably less. There are many different shapes of pearls depending on the type of oyster and the type of nucleation. A baroque shape indicates that the pearl is not round and has a distorted irregular with uneven surfaces. Examples of baroque shapes are pear, drop, egg, button, wings, dog’s teeth and flat.
Tahitian pearls are round, semi-round, drop, button, baroque and circle (rings around the pearl). South Sea Pearls are round, semi round, circle and baroque. Freshwater pearls are mostly baroque and come in endless varieties of shapes, often flat as rather than spherical. A Blister pearl is the term for a natural or cultured pearl that grow attached to the surface of the shell, when they are removed from the shell they are flat on one side and covered in nacre on the top. Mabe pearls are a cultured blister pearl with a round top and tend to be very delicate. Seed pearls are very small natural pearls usually 2mm round. Keshi pearls are a byproduct of the oyster, a small pearl that can form in the muscle of the oyster in addition to the cultured pearl. They can be flat, oval, odd-shaped and usually has a poor lustre quality with surface blemishes.
A strand of pearls should all be matched for color, roundness and luster. A matched strand can be beautiful as well as valuable. Pearls are strung on silk cord from Japan and are usually tied with a tiny knot in between each pearl to keep them separate and secure. As pearls are worn the thread will stretch, if the pearl slides on the thread that is an indication that it is time to have the pearls taken apart, cleaned and restrung. The pearls should always be tight and secure on the thread. A 16” strand is called a choker. An 18”, a princess, 20”, a matinee, 32” an opera. Any strand longer than opera is called a rope of pearls.
Since a pearl is the natural secretion it is a delicate gem. The pearl will be affected by perfumes, hair sprays and oils from skin which will reduce the layers of nacre. Pearls should never be worn in water such as hot tubs, swimming pools or showers. Heat can also damage pearls by causing the nacre to crack. Clean pearls with a soft, damp cloth without the use of any detergents or cleaners. Never use any type of abrasive cleaners or abrasive materials or the pearl surface will scratch.
Do not put pearls in ultrasonic cleaners or commercial jewelry cleaners. A damaged pearl can never be repaired since it is made of organic calcium carbonate. Pearls should be stored in a soft pouch or pearl folder. Safekeeping and treatment of pearls will ensure that pearls can last for generations.
Artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, Titan, Renoir and many others have painted the beauty of women draped in pearls. Photographers have captured Coco Chanel, Jacqueline Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and other society women depicting the continuing love between women and pearls. Sandro Botticielli, known for painting some of the most beautiful female images, painted the portrait of Simonetta Vespucci de’Medici in 1480; she is wearing strings of pearls and pink ribbons woven in her hair and a thick braid of pearls in her clothes which frames her décolletage.
Today pearls are worn with ball gowns, little black dresses, jeans and even as Elizabeth Taylor wore them on the beach in her bikini. Grace Kelly casually wrapped her long pearl strands around her arm.
As quoted from the “Girls in Pearls” by Schoeffel,
When the first drop of rain fell from the clouds into the wide blue sea, it felt insignificant as it was tossed and tumbled by the rolling waves. “How tiny I am in this vast expanse!” it cried. And Heaven answered: “Your modesty honors you, little raindrop, and so I will transform you into a drop of light. You will be the noblest of all jewels, queen of them all, and you will have power over all women.” And the pearl was born.
Janet Deleuse, All Rights Reserved