Pearls have a very long history in jewellery, they have been prized for their natural beauty for millennia. They are now mostly a product of intensive farming. There are two ways of looking at this; either their value is on the wane, or more people can afford them in their jewellery. Here are fourteen curious pearl facts you might not know.
- Pearls were initially hand fished by divers with no more equipment than a rope and a net from the Gulf in the Middle East and the coast of southern India and Sri Lanka. Working conditions were extremely dangerous. Each diver worked in tandem with a puller on whom they relied to surface quickly.
- Arab traders travelled to China and India as early as the 7th Century to trade their precious cargo. A 9th-century shipwreck found off the coast of Indonesia had more than 14,000 pearls in its cargo.
- A red cloth bag was carried by pearl merchants in the Gulf as they went from one pearl fishing Dhow (boat) to another. They used the red cloth to see the pearls more clearly and assess their quality. They would also carry grading sieves, scales and calculation books to value the pearls.
How Pearls Are Formed
- There are many different species of pearl oyster. The main commercially used saltwater ones are the Gulf or Akoya Pearl Oyster, the South-Sea Pearl Oyster and the Tahitian Pearl Oyster (which produces black pearls amongst other colours)
- Nacre is the name for the thin layers of mother of pearl an oyster lays down to make a pearl.
- A little known pearl fact is that it is not a grain of sand irritating the shell that causes a natural pearl. It is the oyster’s parasite defence system. A parasite irritates the shell producing membrane between the internal organs of the oyster and the hard shell. It then becomes entombed in nacre and dies. The oyster continues to lay down more layers of nacre over the deceased parasite which eventually turns into a pearl.
- Pearls can occur in the shell of any mollusc, not just oysters. Scarce examples exist from conches, clams, emperor helmets and tiger lucines and come in colours that match the shell of the mollusc that grew them, bright red, wine red, matt black, salmon pink, orange, purple, lilac and brown.
Where Pearls Are From
- Most commercially produced pearls are freshwater pearls from the freshwater pearl mussel, not an oyster. They are mainly grown in China, a source for some of the best but also some of the worst freshwater pearls. These mussels are very common and occur in most temperate countries in the world.
- Japanese pioneers, scientists Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise with businessman Kokichi Mikimoto invented the pearl culturing and farming process in 1893. First with semi-spherical pearls and initially working separately. In 1904 they developed the commercial farming of spherical pearls. The pearl ring below is an example of the semi-spherical type of pearl first produced by Mikimoto.
- It is a pearl fact that they are not vegan. This might sound blindingly obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people do not associate gems with animals. I’ve been asked where pearls are mined before now! Pearls come from pearl oysters or mussels that have been implanted with a seed around which the pearl grows. So wear fake ones if you want to avoid animal products.
- A baroque pearl is a pearl of very unusual or irregular shape. Renaissance jewellers were fond of creating jewels in the form of bizarre sea monsters or ships with large baroque pearls.
- Charles I of England was wearing a pearl earring at the time of his execution in 1649. This pearl was then given to Hans-Willem Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland and it still exists in a private collection today.
- Imitation pearls are often referred to as paste pearls in the same way as imitation gemstones. They are usually made from coated glass or plastic and vary in quality greatly.
- In medieval times pearls became associated with purity and religious piety. They were central parts of grand bridal crowns and signified virginity and chastity. There are distinct echoes of this meaning in the continued popularity of pearls in wedding jewellery. I made my own wedding cap and incorporated pearls into the design.
Further Reading and the source for most of the above: Pearls by Beatriz Chadour Sampson with Hubert Bari, V&A Publishing 2013