“All art is autobiographical; the Pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”
Federico Fellini (1920-1993)
Pearl is derived from the Latin ‘perna’ (ham), referring to the shape of some pearl mollusks, but the term only came into common use during the 18th century. Prior, the English called them ‘unions’ (from the Latin ‘unio,' meaning ‘unity’ or ‘a single large Pearl’) or the old Greek and Roman name, ‘margarita.' Some associate ‘margarita’ with ‘marine’ because Pearls are waterborne, but it may also come from the Persian ‘murwari,' meaning ‘child of light,' this helps explain why Pearls have long been a symbol of purity and innocence.
Chemical composition of Pearl
Pearls are the result of mollusc's natural response to infection; when an irritant, such as a piece of coral or parasite, enters the mollusc’s soft tissue its natural defense mechanism kicks in, coating the intruder with a cocktail of calcium carbonate, better known as mother or pearl, or ‘nacre.' Left to its own devices and a lot of luck, this process might yield a marketable Pearl over time.
Pearls are named for where they are sourced, and the main varieties are: Akoya Pearl, Freshwater Pearl, South Sea Pearl and Tahitian Pearl. Damage to its original habitat has led to Akoya Pearl also being cultivated in China, Tahiti and Vietnam. Freshwater Pearls are sourced from China and Japan, while South Sea Pearls are cultivated in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
The history of Pearl
Pearl has always been considered one of the most precious of gemstones, and thus has been a symbol a power, prestige, social status and wealth. Over 2000 years ago, in Ancient Rome, Pearls were the most costly items that could be bought with money. Julius Cesar, Roman general, dictator and Pearl aficionado, passed a law during the 1st Century B.C. that prevented lower castes from wearing them. Queen Elizabeth I was so enraptured by Pearls she was called the ‘Pearl Queen,' The historic esteem of Pearls is even recorded in religion. In Matthew (13:45-46) Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a 'Pearl of great price,' while in the Koran (35:33) the kingdom of heaven has “gardens of perpetual bliss will they enter, therein to be adorned with bracelets of gold and Pearls." All this changed for the better in 1908, when a Japanese noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimoto, started the world’s first commercial Pearl farm: Rudimentary Pearl farming had been practiced in China as early as the 5th century, but it was Mikimoto, aptly called the ‘Pearl King,' who managed to culture perfectly round Pearls. Since the 1960s, cultured Pearls have become widespread in the gemstone market and thus affordable.
Properties of Pearl
Pearls are either spherical (perfectly round or nearly round), symmetrical (balanced ovals or drops) or baroque (abstract or irregular). Once out of their shell, they are ready to wear and do not require endless processing or cutting.
Provenance is the primary factor determining the quality of a Pearl, as Pearls from different locations have a different quality and price. Species aside, Pearls are judged by their body color, translucency, orient (overtone), luster, surface clarity or texture, size, shape and symmetry.
The basic body color of Pearls offers a myriad of choices: apricot (yellowish-orange), black, blue, bronze (reddish-brown), champagne (pinkish-yellow), chocolate, cream, golden, green, gray, orange, peach (pinkish-orange), plum (reddish-violet), purple, red, violet, white, yellow and everything in between.
The ‘orient,' or ‘overtone,' is the secondary color of Pearls, and along with luster, is what makes the finest examples. This overtone of translucent colors moves over a Pearl’s body color, accentuating or contrasting as well as adding depth and glow. The term ‘orient’ derives from the Latin ‘oriens,' meaning ‘the rising of the sun’ and this is definitely apt. While the orient is typically monotone, how many colors are visible, and their intensity, is down to the Pearl species and nacre thickness. Luster is related to nacre thickness, but like inclusions in transparent gemstones, a Pearl’s surface clarity or texture is also important. Pearls with smooth silky surfaces will reflect light better and more evenly than ones with significant imperfections.
Varieties of Pearl
Akoya Pearls (Pinctada Fucata Martensi) are named after the Japanese word (akoya-gai) for the saltwater Pearl oyster originally used by Mikimoto. Akoya Pearls typically grow for eight months to two years and can be nucleated with up to five bead implants, but two is most common. Akoya Pearls are usually 2 to 6 millimeters in diameter. Approximately one out of five nucleated Akoya oysters produce Pearls and only a tiny fraction of these are of gem quality.
Freshwater Pearls (Hyriopsis Cuingii) is a freshwater mollusk that produces Pearls in a plethora of colors and shapes. When tissue nucleated, up to 50 Pearls can be produced from a single clam, making them affordable. Typically baroque-shaped because they are solid nacre, they are also very luminous and colorful.
South Sea Pearls (Pinctada Maxima) are noted for producing white, silver and golden Pearls. South Sea Pearls typically grow for two to six years and only accept one nucleus at a time. South Sea Pearls are some of the largest Pearls and while they are typically 10 to 16 millimeters in diameter, they can grow up to 20 millimeters.
Tahitian Pearls (Pinctada Margaritifera) are named for the tropical Isle in French Polynesia. They are arguably the most coveted of all Pearls, despite only being introduced to Europeans in 1845. Tahitian Pearls typically grow for four to five years and while they only accept one nucleus at a time, they can be nucleated several times. Typically eight to sixteen millimeters in diameter, Tahitian Pearls are some of the largest Pearls.
Care for Pearl
Pearls can be cleaned with a moist cloth.