Gifts of Nature, the Oldest Gemstone in the World
Pearls are natural wonders that have been treasured for centuries by ancient and modern cultures around the world. No other gem has captivated human fascination and admiration like the pearl. Diamonds may be forever, but pearls have been recognized as prized jewels for centuries longer than any cut stone. Almost all other gemstones are formed by mineral deposits that must be mined, cut, and polished to reveal their sparkling beauty. Pearls, on the other hand, are beautiful as they are - straight out of the mollusc. High quality pearls have an intense, brilliant lustre and shiny iridescence that emanates from within the gem. For these reasons, pearls have become a symbol of purity and natural beauty.
Pearls in Myth and Legend
In many cultures around the world, the pearl has its own origin myth. An Arab legend weaves a tale of dewdrops filled with moonlight that fell into the ocean and were swallowed by oysters, creating the precious pearls. Greek mythology proclaimed pearls to be tears of joy shed by the goddess Aphrodite. Ancient Egyptians associated pearls with Isis, the goddess of healing and life. Even the Gates of Heaven were described as carved out of pearl in the Bible. Krishna, the Hindu god gave his beloved pearls when they were wed.
The History Of Pearls
Ever since the first pearl was found gleaming inside a shell, pearls have been both coveted and treasured by humans the world over. Originally, the only pearls to be had were natural, wild pearls cultivated by oysters and mussels themselves over the years. Throughout history, pearls were greatly desired gemstones by royalty, merchants, explorers and traders.
The Romans greatly revered pearls, and decreed that only men and women of high birth would be able to wear them. During a brief period of the British Empire, pearls were also reserved exclusively for royalty and nobility. This policy appeared to have reigned throughout most of history, although not necessarily by regal decree. The cost of pearls was so high that most ordinary people were simply unable to afford them.
The lust for pearls sent Spanish ships to the Mexican Gulf, France to French Polynesia and the British to Australia. Once there, they wasted no time in harvesting as many oysters that they could reach. Unfortunately, not all oysters contained pearls, and many of them were simply forced open and then discarded when no pearls were found. Going to the ends of the earth to obtain these treasures by any means necessary, the over-harvesting of oysters in pearl producing regions nearly brought these animals to extinction.
Native Americans accepted strings of beads in exchange for the island of Manhattan. A few centuries later, in 1916, renowned French jeweller Jacques Cartier acquired land there for his first American store. The price being a strand of natural pearls. This long and storied past only adds to the appeal of the incomparable pearl, cherished today as a traditional wedding gift, a birthstone, and in jewellery that reflects taste and refinement.
The Birth of Cultured Pearls
The advent of modern culturing technologies halted the devastation of the world’s natural oyster population, and allowed pearl appreciators around the world to enjoy these unique and lustrous gems at prices that would be inconceivable to those early explorers.
The Chinese had been cultivating Freshwater mabé pearls for hundreds of years. They learned early on how to implant a metal form or mold against the inner shell of the mussel and submerge it in the water for a few years while the mollusc coated the form with layers of nacre. The result would be a pearlescent figure coated with thick layers of nacre. The most popular form was a small sculpture of Buddha, but many other shapes were made as well.
Actual pearl production didn’t begin in China until the 1970’s when it flooded the markets with small, crinkly-textured pearls known as ‘Rice Krispy’ pearls due to their appearance. As the decades have passed however, Chinese cultivation technology has rapidly improved. Today, whole, round Freshwater pearls are available that rival the saltwater Akoya pearl in lustre, shape and smooth, blemish free surfaces- at nearly half the cost. Freshwater pearls are available in a variety of natural colours such as pink, peach, lavender, white and shades in between.
Some of the more recent developments in Chinese Freshwater pearl culturing have produced pearls like no one has ever seen before- intense metallic lustre, a rainbow of colours, and baroque shapes have opened the doors to pearl connoisseurs looking for something unique and lovely.
The science of getting an oyster to cultivate a pearl began in the early 1900’s in Japan. Kokichi Mikimoto, considered the father of the modern cultured pearl industry, began experimenting with nucleating Akoya pearl oysters and was finally successful in cultivating pearls after nearly a decade of experimentation. At about that same time, a government biologist, Tokichi Nishikawa and a carpenter, Tatsuhei Mise had both been working with pearl formation and also successfully nucleated the Akoya pearl oyster. The special grafting needle that Mise invented was granted a patent in 1907.
Meanwhile, Nishikawa applied for a nucleation patent of his own, and discovered Mise’s patent in the patent office. They united for their common goal, and created the Mise-Nishikawa-method which is still what most grafting technicians use today. Mikimoto took their method a step further by adding a step of his own to create perfectly round Akoya pearls, and this altered patent was granted to Mikimoto in 1916. He then proceeded to create the Mikimoto Pearl Company, and began spreading cultured pearls around the world.
South Sea Pearls
White and Golden South Sea pearls were found all along the coast of Australia, as well as the Philippines and Indonesia. The indigenous natives used the natural pearls as part of religious ceremonies and dream interpretation. The colourful and intensely iridescent shells of the pinctada maxima oyster were also highly sought after by British colonists for use in buttons and mother of pearl inlay designs, and so this large and beautiful oyster was also nearly over-harvested to the point of extinction.
The famed black Tahitian pearls were revered by the Polynesians as gifts from their god of love and fertility Oro, who was said to have come to the islands on a rainbow which imbued these gorgeous gems with their myriad colours.
After the French arrived in the 1600’s and began colonising the French Polynesian islands, they too quickly became enamoured of these colourful and unique pearls. They began harvesting every pearl oyster they could; the shells were prized for their iridescence and used as buttons or mother of pearl inlay in Europe.
The harvesting of the oysters nearly drove them to extinction; a limit on harvesting the oysters was decreed in 1880 to try and nurse the remaining wild stock back to health. Much later, in the late 1960’s, modern pearl culturing methods and the first pearl farms came to the islands. Forty years later, the Tahitian pearl makes up about 20% of the pearl market, and is one of the most popular pearl types for jewellery buyers.
The Modern Pearl Market
Today, nearly 99% of all pearls available are cultured. Whether Akoya, Tahitian, Freshwater or South Sea, pearl farms have spread all over the world. Modern culturing techniques are so advanced that there has never been so many high quality pearls available, with new and astonishingly beautiful pearl varieties and hybrids appearing every few years.