Once believed to be tears of gods, pearls have long been a symbol of prestige and distinction. They were often used to represent status. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, used portraiture as a form of propaganda to promote her image as the Virgin Queen. In these portraits, she ensured she wore pearls in abundance, as a symbol of her purity and chastity and as an assertion of the richness of her kingdom. Even today many well-known and distinguished people, such as Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jacky Kennedy and Coco Chanel, used and use pearls as an adornment because they create an image of elegance and refinement.
What is a pearl?
A pearl is a gem of organic material made up of 90% calcium carbonate. It is created as part of a mollusc’s response to the presence of an irritating impurity in its body, where nacre is built up in layers concentrically arranged around the irritant. They have a hardness of 3 on the Mohs scale and are sensitive to dryness, humidity, intense direct light, perfumes or any other acids, and so are less durable than many other gems. Saltwater pearls come from oysters (species Pinctada) and freshwater pearls from mussels (species Unio), and both come in many different shapes: baroque, round, button, oval, pear and egg. Very few pearls are perfect spheres.
There are two types of pearl: natural and cultured. Nowadays, natural pearls are very rare and can reach extraordinarily high prices. In comparison, cultured pearls are a 20th-century invention which accounts for more than 99% of all pearls sold worldwide. One of the first promoters and inventors of the cultured pearl method was a Japanese man named Kokichi Mikimoto. To produce the beaded cultured pearls, humans implant the nucleus particle into oysters and mussels. Japan is still the world’s leading producer of cultured pearls, although some other countries also have pearl-culturing farms
There are three types of beaded saltwater pearls (marine cultured pearls) available:
* Akoya pearls (white, small size of about 6 mm in diameter)
* South Sea cultured pearls (large, both white and coloured, up to 12 mm in diameter)
* Tahiti cultured pearls (black and grey cultured pearls, some of them iridescent, up to 12 mm in diameter)
What is the colour and price of a pearl?
When I think about a Pearl, the first colour that comes to mind is white. Well, even ‘white’ pearls are not just white. The body colour can have different undertones: purple, green, pink and orange to name a few. Pearls can also come in different body colours. Sometimes this is caused by organic pigments in the nacre. Conch pearls are a rare type of natural pearl of a pink or pinkish-orange in colour which is very popular among extreme high-end jewellery
The value of a pearl is based on colour, lustre, translucency, texture, shape and size. The finest and most expensive pearls have a pure and even tone, a strong overtone with high lustre, strong semi-translucency, no cracks, scratches or blemishes, a round shape, and a large size. Prices can vary from few pounds for imitation pearls to thousands for cultured or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for natural pearls. For example, the second biggest pearl ever discovered is called the Pearl of Allah, weighs 6.4kg and is worth an estimated $35 million (£26 million).
Other famous (and expensive) pearls include La Peregrina, (“the pilgrim”), the finest and biggest drop pearl ever found which sits in the centre of a beautiful necklace. Originally given as a gift by Philip II of Spain to his wife Mary, Queen of Scots, it was later purchased by Richard Burton for $37,000 for his wife, the actress Elizabeth Taylor. It was sold again in 2011 by Christie’s for $11.8 million.
A pair of natural pearl earrings, which belonged to the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Empress Eugenie of France, set a new record when was sold at Doyle New York, for $3.3 million. The two-strand Baroda pearl necklace, made up of sixty-eight pearls perfectly matched in size and colour and ranging in diameter from 10-16mm, was a necklace made from an original seven-strand necklace, owned by the Maharajas of India. The collar is joined by a cushion-cut diamond clasp made by Cartier, and it was sold in 2007 for $7.1 million.
Where are pearls found?
Some of the localities where natural pearls can be found are Bahrain, north-western Sri Lanka, Tahiti, the Sulu Sea, north and northeast of Australia, the Mergui Archipelago, Venezuela, New Guinea, Borneo, the Gulf of California and Mexico.
Other facts about pearls
Pearls are the birthstone for June. They are most often used in jewellery as necklaces or earrings. Many stories say that pearls should not be given as gifts, or that a bride should not wear them the day of her marriage because they bring sadness.
The biggest pearl found so far weighs an enormous 34kg. The oldest surviving pearl ornament is in the Persian Gallery of the Louvre Museum, Paris. It’s a three-row necklace of 216 pearls, discovered at Susa, the site of the Winter Palace of the Persian Kings. It was found in 1901. These gems survive best away from abrasive contact, so those worn in bracelets or rings should be limited to occasional wear to avoid scratches due to their softness. To preserve these beautiful gemstones, it is said that pearl jewellery is the last thing a woman puts on when she gets ready to go out for dinner – and is the first thing she takes off when she returns home.
Today the range of aesthetics in pearl jewellery is boundless, whether natural, cultured or even imitation. Cultured pearl necklaces are particularly in demand, and it is fair to say that, regardless of origin, pearl jewellery is timeless.