Fondly known as the ‘Queen of Gems and the gem of Queens’ we thought it only right that we devote a blog to these much loved, sensual and luxurious gems.
Pearls in History
Pearls were first documented in 5th century BC by Romans and Egyptians, though they are thought to be discovered many years before written history. Recorded in religious writings such as Hindu, Hebrew and Christian scriptures as well as the Qur’an they have been recognised across the world for their alluring beauty and rarity. As such highly desired and rare gems (obtainable by diving only) pearls historically commanded enormous sums of money and thus were owned by the rich and powerful. Myths and legends surround these mysterious jewels borne of living creatures. It is said Cleopatra crushed a pearl and dissolved it in a glass of vinegar and drunk it, simply to win a wager with (Roman leader) Mark Antony that she could consume the wealth of an entire nation - 10 million sesterces - in just one meal. Renaissance in Europe saw a surge of popularity for pearls with the Royal Courts awash with them, allegedly laws were passed that only Peers be adorned with pearls such was their status. More recently, icons of our time Coco Chanel and Elizabeth Taylor have been great pearl lovers with Elizabeth owning one of the most precious and famous natural pearls in the world named La Peregrina, with an unparalleled Provenance dating back to the mid 16th Century.
So what exactly is a pearl and how are they created?
A pearl is a hard, typically lustrous object, created in the flesh of a living shelled mollusc. It is composed of calcium carbonate (like the mollusc’s shell) which is deposited in concentric layers, with the outer layer being referred to as nacre. The reason that pearls occur is due to an ‘irritant’ entering the shell. It is commonly thought that a grain of sand is typically the ’irritant’ but more often than not it is a parasite. In self defence the mollusc will form a pearl sac and secrete calcium carbonate and conchiolin layer upon layer, to prevent any injury from any sort of intrusion or intruder; a wonderful and beautiful accident of nature!
This incredible natural process can take years and years to occur and even after that amount of time it is incredibly unusual to find a perfectly round pearl; in fact, in a haul of 3 tons of oysters only 3 or 4 oysters will produce perfectly round natural pearls. So one can truly appreciate how pearls (especially an entire row of fine round pearls), came to be so highly valued historically. In approximately 1915 Jeweller Cartier famously bought his New York store (now known as the Cartier Building) on fifth Avenue for $100 and a double strand necklace of natural pearls worth $1 million!
Fortunately since then pearls have become far more accessible, in 1920 Kokichi Mikimoto of Mikimoto Pearls, changed the pearl industry forever making pearls available to the world. After years of practice and many attempts he managed to successfully introduce a nucleus bead into an oyster and cultivate his first pearls; because of Mikimoto cultured pearls are now available for to all to enjoy without the astronomical prices that natural pearls command.
Different Types of Pearls
Pearls occur naturally an endless assortment of colours, shapes and sizes. Classically speaking the most desired type of pearl is a perfectly round pearl, with a strong lustre, flawless from blemishes, and traditionally the larger the pearl the more valuable. There are four main varieties; Akoya, South Sea, Tahitian and Freshwater.
- Freshwater pearls are now probably the most well known variety as they make up a large proportion of the market being affordable and coming in an enormous array of colours.
- Tahitian pearls vary from white to black, they are borne in black-lipped oysters from Tahiti and French Polynesia and are beautifully striking. They are the only pearls produced naturally (or cultured) with a grey or black colouring.
- South Sea pearls are famous for their size and satin-like sheeny lustre, grown in enormous oysters which can span a foot, they can produce pearls between 9-20mm with the average being 13mm. Their colouring ranges from silvery white through to golden.
- Akoya pearls, while smaller that South Sea, are highly desirable for their fine mirror-like lustre. Favoured by Kokichi Mikimoto, Akoya pearls range from white cream and pink to a silver pink.
- Of course for the more adventurous pearl lover there are Baroque pearls, quirky organic pearl shapes which are available in all varieties.
How to examine and buy pearls!
First decide what you would like to spend. The prices of pearls can vary hugely so have a clear idea. Next, to choose your type of pearl, ask yourself if you looking for especially large pearls, or a particular colour such as black? Or perhaps it is the lustre which is most important to you not size? Once you have come to your decision and found a row you like arrange it lengthways and roll it over the cloth so that you can see the full pirouette of each pearl as it moves around the string. You should be looking for four main things, the shape of the pearl, the surface of the pearl, the lustre of the pearl and of course the pearl size. Much like the four C’s but for pearls!
This exercise is very important to help you see the overall shape of the pearl, how well matched it is within a row, as well as any imperfections such as wrinkles in the nacre, bumps, colour blemishes and possible abrasions.
Remember a pearl is a natural object and not something perfect, the occasional flaw is only a romantic reminder of this.
For further information on pearls, how to look after your pearls or to view our collection contact us.