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The Cultured Pearl
The Buying Guide
Getting to know Gems
How to select, buy, care for, and enjoy Pearl Jewelry
Pearls most ancient and precious of Gems
The allure of the pearl is timeless and universal. Since the beginning of recorded history, the pearl has been extolled as a metaphor for life itself, for virtue and love, wisdom and justice, spiritually and righteousness. Always regarded as on one the rarest, most valuable and symbolic of all gems, its, praises are sung by the great poets of every age; it is praised in every culture, from ancient China, India, Persia, Egypt, Greece and Rome, to the Mayan, Aztec and Incan cultures of the Americas, and even the ancient cultures of the South Pacific and Australia.
The illustrious history of the pearl is unparalleled. Today, pearl is the birthstone for June, the pearl has a history more ancient, more fascinating, more spiritual, and more regal than any other gem. The portrait collections of the world’s great museums most vividly illustrate the unrivaled reverence and prestige reserved for the pearl. Here, as one strolls through the generations, we can see that in every age, history’s most illustrious men and women chose to be adorned in pearls for the images they wished to leave to posterity. What could more dramatically highlight the allure of the pearl than seeing that from among all of their riches, the pearl was the gem of choice.
In modern world fine pearls continue to evoke a sense of awe and wonder, perhaps even more so because of our understanding of how the pearl is actually created. For many, the pearl is seen as a very beautiful and poetic metaphor for life. In a world where we often wonder how we will survive the obstacle and stresses hat threaten to overwhelm us, the pearl is an exquisite reminder that from something which might at first appear to be misfortune can come something of great beauty and value, something that would not otherwise have been created at all. For (as you will find) the pearl itself is something that would never have been created without adversity and struggle! And perhaps even more important, whether or not there will be a pearl at all, and the quality and beauty of the pearl, depend upon what the individual mollusc does to deal with the situation; not all mollusc in the same situation create a pearl, and of those that do, not all create something beautiful. And so it is in life.
It is not known exactly when or where the pearl was discovered, but it is likely that it was long before recorded history, probably by someone searching for food. Whatever the case, there is little doubt that the pearl was highly valued from the very first, for a beauty as unique as its origin.
Unlike diamond and most colored gemstones, its beauty is there for all to behold from the very first moment. It needs no enhancement and not cutting of polishing. A fine pearl has a depth and lustrousness that seems to actually glow from within. Imagine how it must have seemed to an ancient people when one of their clan, perhaps while eating or shucking a mussel, discovered a shimmering, round, glowing pearl! In an age when people worshipped the forces and elements of nature as gods, when amulets and talismans were more precious than all other things, imagine not only the surprise, but the awe and mystery that must have surrounded the moment. Imagine what must have gone through their minds when they behold this natural beauty, coming as a gift from a living creature, radiating a lustrousness that must have seemed nothing less than a living spirit!
It is not difficult to believe that the pearl was truly the first gem; something beautiful, rare, and highly prized. To ancient peoples who believed that inanimate objects possessed special powers that could be transmitted to the owner or wearer, a pearl; coming from a living sea creature and exhibiting an inner glow suggestive of life itself, must surely have seemed a treasure more powerful and more valuable than all else!
Earliest known cultures prize the pearl
No one will probably never know exactly when or where the first pearl were discovered, but it is known that the pearl has been revered since the beginning of recorded history. In Asia evidence has been found dating back thousands of years. Here, so long ago, we find the pearl associated with charity, and the hope of a such a reward incentive enough to lead a good life. This may be the first recorded testament to the connection between pearls and virtuous acts.
In China there are accounts of pearls dating back about 1,000 years telling of the popularity of small mother-of-pearl coated Buddhas, which were cleverly created by inserting thin lead castings into freshwater moluscs to obtain a pearly coating. Nobody knows why, but there may well have been a spiritual significant.
The rulers of ancient India and “Ceylon” (now known as Sri Lanka) also valued the pearl, and it discovered in ancient writings dating back 2,500 years that pearls fisheries were known off the coasts of Ceylon at that time, and that pearls were highly valued. Here it is found that pearls considered an important enough gift to send with emissaries from Ceylon to India to assure friendship between the rulers of these lands.
While little pearl fishing now occurs in Ceylon, it is known it flourished throughout the Roman period because the Roman historian Pliny makes specific mention of Ceylon as the major source of pearls “Par excellence.” The Persian Gulf became a source for pearls from about 300 B. C., and quickly became the source of the most highly desired pearls, the most beautiful of all, discovered off the islands of Bahrain. The Persian Gulf remained the major source of most the world’s important pearls from that ancient time until the mid 20th century. There are portraits of Persian kings and queens adorned in pearls, and the louvre houses a necklace containing pearls and other gems that dates from at least the fourth century B. C.
The conquests of ancient Persia over Egypt and Greece probably resulted in the introduction of pearls to these part of the world; pearls are strongly associated with Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, and, through Greece and Egypt, to Rome and other parts of the world. During the Roman empire pearls were also strongly associated to Venus, the Roman goddess of love; the close link between pearls and love is clearly an ancient one. These early conquests may also have contributed to the increase of pearl fisheries in the Red Sea along the coasts of Arabia and North Africa, important sources of pearls at that time, although extinct today.
Margaret - A real Pearl
The Roman loved pearls and the women displayed them lavishly; the Roman passion knew no bounds. None, however, mad a greater show than did Pompey, who in his triumphal procession displayed his own likeness created of pearls. For the Roman, pearls were one of the most sought after of all the riches from the East. Wealthy Roman woman would sleep on beds inlaid with pearls to assure a peaceful night’s sleep. Toward the end of the Roman period, when “sumptuary laws” were put into effect to try to limit vulgar displays of wealth, an individual could not wear more than the prescribed number of pearls at one one time. According to Pliny, in the first century A. D. pearls ranked first in value among all precious things.
The Romans used two words for “pearls.” If large and perfect, the word “unio” was used, meaning unique. Romans also used the word “margaritae” (from the Greek word for pearl), indicating something cherished or of unusual value. The name “Margaret” in all forms; “Marguerite,” “Margarita,” and so on, means “pearl.” Since Roman times it has come to be associated with the pearl-like qualities of purity, spirituality, virtue, and chastity.
Pearl, Perle, Paarl, Perla....
The word “pearl” is similar in many languages; in English (pearl), French and German (perle), Dutch and Swedish (paarl), Italian and Spanish (perla). This word, universally recognized today, probably came from the Roman word pirula meaning “tear shaped,” as were many of the natural pearls known to the Romans. The word pirula spread throughout Europe with the spread of the Roman Empire, and as it was used to describe the shape of many natural freshwater pearls, probably came to replace the word unio to describe this natural beauty.
Pearls for the Bride - An Ancient tradition
“Krishna brought forth pearls from the depth of the sea to give to his daughter on her wedding day.”
As we mentioned earlier, some the most ancient records relating to the pearl are found in Ceylon and India. Long before the Romans were enjoying pearls, the pearl was held in high esteem in India. Pearls are mentioned often in ancient Hindu writings, in the scared texts known as the Vedas. These provide some of the earliest mentions of pearls associated with longevity, prosperity and preservation of life. Here word krisana appears; almost 3,000 years ago, translated as “pearl”. Here we also find the story of Krishna the preserver (notice the similarity to the word “krisana”). And here, also we find perhaps the oldest written mention of pearls in association with weddings. We are told how Krishna brought forth pearls from the depths of the sea to give to his daughter on her wedding day. What a beautiful story. What a rare and magnificent gift. And what better illustration of the pearl’s great value. The Hindu story is perhaps the earliest mention of pearls and marriage, and the start of a centuries old tradition or pearls as the appropriate adornment of the bride!
The Ancient Greeks also believed that pearls should be part of the wedding experience; believing that pearls would help ensure marital bliss and prevent newlywed brides from crying, they were considered “the wedding gem.” During the period of the crusades, we find that the pearls were the gift of many a gallant knight returning from the Middle East, bestowed upon his “fair lady” for her wedding day. By the 14th centuries, we find pearls at the height of “wedding fashion” with royal weddings in the House of Burgundy taking place in a veritable “sea of pearls.” Historical accounts document that virtually everyone from the bride herself to her male guests were adorned in glistening pearls.
From Queens Elizabeth I to our modern Queen Elizabeth II, the tradition has continued through the centuries. At the beginning of the 20th century, pearls accounted for over 75% of jewelry sales in the U. S. at the turn of the century. Today, the tradition of bestowing pearls upon the bride for her wedding day, often by the father of the bride, or the groom himself, continues as it has for hundreds of years.
Pearls and the Kingdom of Heaven
In addition to the bride, other references from the Hindu Vedas evoke exquisite images with pearls.
In the earliest Jewish writings the pearl appears often as a metaphor for those things which were most highly valued. In the ancient Biblical text of Job, for example, we find that in describing the value of wisdom, it is emphasized by placing it above all other things of value, including the pearl.
We also find in the Jewish literature the wonderful rabbinic story of Abraham and his wife Sarah entering the land of Egypt. Here Abraham, when confronted by customs collectors, is willing to part with all of his valuable possessions; even pearls, to protect Sarah, whose love he places at an even higher value. The value of pearls, we see in this story, is second only to love, the most valuable of all things.
By beginning of the first century, we begin to see references to pearls in Christian writings. By the 6th century, the allure of the pearl is undiminished. According to Islamic mystics, the pearl was the first gem creation of God, and for Moslem the pearl is a special gift to the world from God. For this reason, Moslems hold natural pearls in very high regard and often avoid cultured pearls altogether.
Pearls for Health
In addition to its value as a gem of incomparable beauty and allure, for many centuries leading physicians believed pearls contained special curative abilities, especially for the eyes, diseases of the blood, and melancholy or depression. Pearls were believed to possess the power to enable one to see into the future, and to interpret dreams.
Perhaps we should not scoff, however. Not many years ago, Kokichi Mikimoto; the man who brought the world the “cultured pearl” of the 20th century, when asked about his excellent health at the age of 94, commented, “I owe my fine health and long life to the two pearls I have swallowed every morning of my life since I was twenty.”
In Bahrain, where by law all pearls brought into the country must be natural, some cultured pearls have been permitted by customs to enter the country; but strictly for use in medicinal preparations to treat cystitis, impotency, and eye problems! And in China, for example, pulverized pearls are used in cosmetic creams reported to keep skin young looking.
The New World - The “Land of Pearls”
Most pearls continued to come from the Persian Gulf or the Rivers of Europe until the discovery of the New World. Never did the crown heads of Europe dream of the wealth that would soon be forthcoming from this “primitive” land. Who could have imagined a bounty of pearls? Who could have imagined that native Americans, primitive people, were wearing fortunes in pearls! Yet we find in an ancient Hopewell Indian Burial mound in Ohio, a freshwater pearl necklace almost 3,000 years old, giving testimony to the value placed on pearls by ancient native Americans.
From Europe to Asia, the heads of state were about to enjoy the richest bounty discovered in over a thousand years; a horn of plenty consisting of every type of pearl then known. The American were rich in exquisite freshwater pearls in every color, primarily from the lakes and rivers of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee regions of North America. In South America, the costs of Panama and Venezuela were found to yield magnificent white saltwater pearls, rivaling the best from the Persian Gulf, and magnificent natural black pearls from the Baja peninsula of Mexico provided a rich bounty for the kings and queens.
Christopher Columbus discovered the existence of fine pearl fisheries in the Caribbean, off the coast of Venezuela (near the island of Cubagua) in 1498. He had sent some sailors to intercept a fishing boat, curious to learn what they were catching. The men came back with pearls; described in historical writings as “large and white,” for which they had traded broken pieces of Malaga pottery. He quickly sent them back with a variety of other “modern” items, including buttons, needles and more pottery, which they traded for about 18 ounces of pearls, a king’s ransom! This area supplied Europe with an abundance of fine, large pearls until overfishing totally depleted the ouster beds.
It was not long before the courts of Europe and Asia were enjoying the luxury of pearls in full measure. By the mid 16th century, the most popular royal jewel was the pearl. Paintings of the kings and queens of Europe show them regaled with pearls, even smothering their attire, as in the portraits of King Henry the Eighth and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I; who even bought thousands of imitation pearls to meet her need to sew pearls onto every garment.
Pearls from the New World and the Persian Gulf provided most of the world production of natural pearls until the early 20th century.
The Cultured Pearl makes its debut
Relatively little change with regard to the pearl market from the discovery of the New World until the 20th century and the development of the cultured pearl. While the Chinese and others had experimented with pearl cultivation for hundreds of years, it was not until the end of the 19th century that serious progress was made. An Australian named William Saville-Kent and three Japanese ”inventors;” a biologist named Tokichi Nishikawa, a carpenter named Tatsuhei Mise, and the son of a noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimoto, discovered techniques for culturing pearls. In 1916, Mikimoto patented a technique to produce round pearls, and by 1920 he was selling them around the world.
While the name “Mikimoto” is the first that comes to mind when cultured pearls are mentioned, The Australian Saville-Kent is now believed to deserve the credit for the original development of the technique that was later found to be essential to producing a fine cultured pearl; his technique involved taking a piece of mantle tissue from one oyster and implanting it in another. His technique was perfected and patented by Mise and Nishikawa, and later purchased by Mikimoto.
Mikimoto’s cultured pearl arrive at an especially critical moment in terms of the availability of natural pearls. The world supply of fine, natural pearls had already begun to dwindle significantly as a result of depletion of the oyster population from overfishing. By the mid 20th century, industrialization, the discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf, and pollution contributed to a further decline. Employment in the oil fields was also more attractive than diving because it was more dependable, and much less dangerous; there were many deaths each year connected with diving for pearls, so many divers abandoned diving to pursue work in the oil fields. It wasn’t long before little remained of the world’s natural oyster beds, or divers who would bring them to the surface.
Today, diving for natural pearls is done only sporadically, often by amateur collectors and treasure seekers, and the number of fine natural pearls are now acquired from important private estates, through a private agent, or at important auctions.
Natural pearls are as rare today as at any other time in history. Perhaps even rarer. Fine natural pearls command staggering prices, placing them beyond the reach of most people. They are sought almost exclusively by collectors and connoisseurs, and people from cultures that place special value on the natural pearl, including many Arab nations.
Mikimoto and his cultured pearl change the pearl market forever. Over the years, culturing techniques have been improved, and new techniques have been developed. In French Polynesia natural color black cultured pearls are now being produced, and techniques developed by Australian producers have resulted in magnificent, large white South Sea cultured pearls, which are considered by most today to be the “Queen of Gems.”
Today’s pearl market is a cultured pearl market and were it not for cultured pearls, most of us would never have seen a beautiful pearl except in the portraits of the rich and famous housed in the great museum collections. Today, for those seeking beautiful pearls, it is fine cultured pearls they seek.
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