If you’ve ever seen a pirate movie, you’ve likely seen a chest brimming over with gold and jewels and strands of pearls. You’ve probably heard the parable of the man who sold everything he owned to purchase a field in which he found a “pearl of great price.” Those days are long gone, but time was, pearls really were the top of the world when it came to rare, precious things of a material nature.
Once upon a time, though, pearls were the most highly valued gem-grade material, bar none. A strand of well-matched pearls was the most expensive jewelry item in the world. The Vedics and Mughals, the Muslim Empires, the Egyptians, the Persians, numerous Chinese dynasties, the Greeks, the Japanese, and the Roman Empire: all of these rich and powerful cultures treasured pearls above everything else. Pearls were, at one time, reserved exclusively for royalty and the extremely wealthy.
Just as some examples, the Roman historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius pawned just one of his mother’s pearl earrings to pay for the journey from Rome to his new command post in Lower Germany. In Tudor England, the 1500s were known as the Pearl Age. Ancient mosaics from the Indian Subcontinent show royalty and deity alike draped in pearls.
Surprised? It’s no wonder. Pearls have fallen out of the limelight of luxury since the advent of the modern pearl culturing process.
Nowadays, pearl is one of the birthstones for June, and you can readily find them in almost every jewelry store. Pearls go with blue jeans and pearls go with your finest evening wear. Dress them up, or dress them down: pearls are always in vogue, and I think no lady should be without at least one strand.
The rarity of natural pearls is responsible for this mentality. Depending on the species cited, anywhere from 1-in-1,000 to 1-in-500,000 wild mollusks will produce a single pearl in its entire lifetime. Marginalize that by the fact only a fraction of a percent will be jewelry-grade, and you’ll have an idea of just how scarce natural, high-quality pearls really are.
Thanks to the advent of cultured pearls, you do not have to be a member of the societal elite to enjoy the beauty and splendor pearls offer. Even so, there are still various grades and qualities of cultured pearls, and some are much rarer and more expensive than others. But it is reasonable to say that well-nigh 99% of pearls on the market today are cultured. If you have your heart set on obtaining pearls harvested from wild mollusks, be prepared to add several zeroes onto the end of your budget. I can get natural pearls for you, but all of the pearls I carry in my store are cultured pearls.
All pearls begin life in humility as an irritant to whatever mollusk produces it. Natural irritants are most commonly parasites or stray bits of bone or shell. In cultured pearls, highly paid specialists plant “pearl seeds” in a living creature. Over time, the mollusk secretes nacre – a mixture of organic proteins and the mineral aragonite – which coats the irritant with layer upon layer, eventually building up a pearl. If you imagine a brick wall, you’ll have a fairly good idea of the structure of nacre layers: platelets of aragonite are the bricks, and the proteins act as the mortar holding it all together.
Nacre is soft by gemstone standards, but its layered construction gives it a resolute toughness, which in turn makes pearls wearable. Nacre is very sensitive to chemicals, though. Pearls should be the last thing you put on when getting dressed. Hair spray, perfume, heavily chlorinated or brominated water (swimming pools and hot tubs), and even suitably contaminated well water can all attack pearls, discoloring or otherwise damaging them. But as long as you make certain your pearls are last on and first off, they’ll keep for decades.
Pearls are special to me. In fact, pearls are one of my favorites. They can be subtle and charming, or they can be dramatic and captivating. They can be classic and elegant, or they can be contemporary and edgy. There really is a lot to adore about pearls.
I can introduce you to several other kinds of pearl formations beyond the traditional rounds. Stop in with some time to kill, and I’ll also show you the difference between South Seas, Akoya, and Tahitian pearls. I’ll teach you what to look for when you’re shopping for pearls, and you’ll quickly see the selections I carry are worth your time to shop for. One of my favorite design schemes are interchangeable pendants and clasps that literally fit into strands of pearls. I incorporate all kinds of metals into these designs and everything from diamonds to opals to hand-carved gem materials like carnelian, onyx, and lapis lazuli.
A strand of pearls can easily be the most versatile item in your jewelry collection. If you just can’t picture how that’s possible, please pay me a visit; I’ll be glad to show you how you can maximize your investment in a strand of fine cultured pearls.