The pearl is oldest known gem. The Romans and Greeks believed pearls were Aphrodite’s hardened tears of joy while the Ancient Chinese thought they materialized from the brains of dragons.
Empress Theodora in a mosaic at St. Vitale in Ravenna – wearing pearls[/caption]Through history pearls have been associated with romance and used to symbolize purity. Fresh from the sea their pale lustre evokes images of untouched flesh. Krishna gave his daughter pearls on her wedding day and pearls were a vital ingredient in Cleopatra’s aprodisiac potion concocted to lure in lovers! Pearls have also been potent status symbols and were once reserved exclusively for royalty and later to the upper classes. Roman women chose to festoon their houses in pearls and slept in their jewellery as a reminder of their wealth on awakening.
From Humble Beginnings…
Pearls retain their revered status and are shrouded in myth as gems of unrivalled beauty – ironic considering they materialize from inside a dowdy mollusk. It is no surprise natural pearls leave people mystified when their creation is explained. The formation of a pearl starts when a foreign body gets embedded in the flesh of an oyster and a protective layer coats it to prevent further aggravation. Over time, multiple layers of nacre build and a natural pearl is formed. Nacre is also known as Mother of Pearl – charming etymology considering the layers of mother of pearl that envelop nucleus to create a fully formed gem.
Pearls can be found in both Freshwater and Saltwater. Saltwater pearls include akoya cultured pearls grown in Chinese and Japanese waters and the sought after Tahitian pearls which are grown in a much wider area then Tahiti!
The development of Cultured Pearls
Natural pearls are rare and their creation has been simulated in order to increase the production of ‘cultured pearls’. Japanese purveyors of pearls, Mikimoto, were the pioneers of cultured pearl production. Cultured pearls are formed when a bead is manually inserted into the mollusk as an artificial irritant. The quality of the pearl harvest varies enormously: as many as 10,000 pearls can be sorted to produce a uniform 16″ necklace. The world’s first semi-spherical cultured pearl was successfully created by Kokichi Mikimoto on July 11 1893. Cultured pearls now constitute approximately 90% of the pearl market.
Pearls in Pictures
In the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I (c.1588), an abundance of pearl jewellery adorns her crown and chest, representing purity and reaffirming the queen’s chastity and devotion to the realm
One of the most famous pearls of the 17th century was worn by King Charles I – right up to his execution in 1649. Immortalised in a number of royal portraits, he was rarely seen without his ‘statement piece’ which gave him a rakish edge. The origin of the single pearl earring is unclear. It first appears in a miniature of the young Prince of Wales, aged 15. Tracey Chevalier fictionalized the creation of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s intriguing portrait in her novel ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ (1999), later recreated as a film starring Scarlett Johansson. The hot plot is shrouded in mysterious and romantic undertones reflecting the enigmatic nature of the pearl it revolves around.
The Price of Pearls
Natural pearls continue to command fantastic prices owing to their beauty and scarcity. 2013 marked an historic sale of a pair of natural pearl drop earrings at Woolley and Wallis. Estimated to fetch between £80,000 – £120,000 the hammer dropped at £1.6 million! The world witnessed a bidding war as demand from affluent Eastern buyers drove prices up. The sale indicated the reinstatement of the pearl as King of Jewels, before the Diamond became the ultimate status symbol. Price records continue to be smashed, with the sale in May 2014 of the world’s largest known natural saltwater pearl. Weighing 33.147cts (132.59 grains), the pearl measured 16.5mm – 17.4mm and sold for a remarkable £680,000. The value of a pearl largely depends on the quality of the nacre which gives it lustre.
Pearls and Contemporary Fashion
Contemporary designers are reinventing the pearl. Pearl jewellery is frequently seen on the catwalk; Karl Lagerfeld has reworked pearl designs countless times for Chanel. Less well known but equally creative is upcoming designer Melanie Georgacopoulos, while Sophie Bille Brahe is making waves among the fashion pack.
Moonstone has a pearlescent finish resembling moon rays. It varies in colour from blue white to peach and is a spiritual stone commonly worn by women to promote balance and harmony. Moonstone is believed to distil friction in tempestuous relationships. Such is its power that some believed moonstone could make the wearer invisible! Moonstone is mined in Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, and the United States and is exchanged as a symbol of health and longevity.
The third birthstone associated with June is Alexandrite. A rare stone and yellow or browny green in colour which flashes red when exposed to a glowing light source. Alexandrite looks specially beautiful by candlelight and has been dubbed an “an emerald by day, a ruby by night” by poets. Alexandrite was first mined in the Ural mountains in 1830 but is mined today in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Madagascar, Tanzania and Burma. It typically symbolises happiness and good fortune.
Video on how Natural pearls are formed: