Few gems are as elegant and timeless as the pearl. Rightly called the Queen of Gems, the pearl has been patronised by famous women throughout history, including Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Margherita of Savoy Queen of Italy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
What makes the pearl unique and truly exquisite is that it is the only gem created by a living organism. Although they vary greatly in size, shape and colour, one thing that is constant is the universality with which pearls are coveted across cultures.
Pearls are broadly classified into two categories based on their formation: natural and cultured.
Natural pearls are formed when a foreign object enters a mollusc such as a mussel or oyster. The organism coats the object with a substance called nacre, and over time the layers of nacre form what we know as the pearl. Due to the nature of the process and the rarity of chance, natural pearls are often very expensive and valuable.
Cultured pearls are formed in the same way but with one crucial difference - the foreign object is introduced into the mollusc by man. The pearl farmer intentionally induces the mollusc to create a pearl by feeding it with an irritant rather than leaving it to nature. Some of the finest pearls in the world today are cultured in pearl farms.
Pearls may be either seawater or freshwater pearls, depending on the water body that the mollusc inhabits.
No discussion of the pearl would be complete without a reference to Kokichi Mikimoto, who is widely credited for pioneering the cultured pearl revolution. In 1893, Mikimoto cultured five semi-spherical pearls - the first pearls to be created by man. In 1896 he received a patent for production of hemispherical pearls, and after years of research succeeded in culturing perfectly round pearls in 1905. But creating pearls wasn't enough for Mikimoto - he was committed to producing pearls of only the finest quality. In 1932, Mikimoto burned pearls which were of inferior quality in front of the Kobe Chamber of Commerce.
Lustre is one of the most important qualities of a pearl, referring to the reflection of light off the surface of a pearl and the refraction of light from its layers of nacre. It is sometimes referred to as the glow of the pearl. High lustre pearls usually signify pearls with a thick coating of nacre and are more valuable.
The shape of the pearl is also an important characteristic. A common misconception about pearls is that they are usually round, but pearls (especially large ones) are rarely perfect spheres. The longer and larger a pearl grows inside the mollusc, the less likely it is to be perfectly rounded. Pearls may be either round, off round, semi-baroque or baroque.
The size of the pearl depends on how long it remains inside the mollusc, the temperature and the chemistry of the water. The size of the pearl is important to the price it commands, as large, round pearls are extremely rare in both natural and cultured pearl types.
Pearls also vary greatly in colour depending on the species of mollusc from which they are formed. While pearls are traditionally thought of as white, they may also be pink, gold, silver, grey, green and black, among other colours. The surface of the pearl should bear an even colour without either dark or light patches.
Types of Pearls
Akoya Pearls: The Akoya oyster is very commonly used for culturing pearls as it tends to yield pearls of a very high quality. These are cultured seawater pearls, with Japan and China being the highest and second highest producers of the pearl. Akoya pearls are coveted for their extremely high lustre and rounded shape and are usually either white or cream with overtones of gold, pink, or silver, although they may also be dyed black. The Akoya pearl is also valuable because an oyster usually produces only one pearl at a time, which can take between two to three years to fully form. A strand of pearls will commonly consist of this variety.
Biwa Pearls: The term Biwa Pearls refers to high quality pearls which were cultivated by molluscs in the waters of Japan's largest lake. Lake Biwa was among the first places where pearls were cultivated, but increasing pollution in the lake has compelled pearl farmers to stop cultivation.
Freshwater Pearls: These pearls are cultivated mainly in the ponds, lakes and rivers of China and are among the most popular pearls today as they are less expensive than many of the other pearl varieties available in the market. One mussel can grow multiple pearls at a time, ensuring that there is rarely in scarcity in supply. Freshwater pearls are not necessarily as highly lustrous or rounded in shape as other pearls, but they are available in a variety of colours and shapes and are resilient gems that are less prone to damage.
Mabe Pearls: Mabe Pearls are hemispherical pearls that grow rounded on one side and flat on the other, as they are grown along the inside of the oyster's shell. These are multi-hued pearls that are used in jewellery mainly in rings or earrings. Mabe pearls are also known as Bouton or Blister pearls.
South Sea Pearls: These pearls are produced in the seawaters of Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and the French Polynesian Islands. The most common oysters used are the Silver Lip and Golden Lip Pearl Oyster, which produce among the largest and most expensive pearls in the world. The South Sea Pearl takes approximately two years to form and includes colours such as white, silver and gold.
Tahitian/Black Pearls: The term 'Tahitian Pearls' is misleading as these beautiful black pearls are not cultivated in Tahiti. Rather, they are cultivated in other parts of the French Polynesian islands from where they are sent to Tahiti for export. Tahitian Pearls, which come from the Black Lip Pearl Oyster, are also known as Black Pearls because they are the only naturally black variety of pearls. These pearls also come in other dark hues, including green, grey, blue, silver, purple, and brown. Only one in ten thousand Black Lip oysters produces a pearl, making this variety extremely valuable.
Pearls in India
When it comes to India, the southern city of Hyderabad is lauded for its pearls. The city experienced over two centuries of Nizam reign, and continues to have a rich, burgeoning gem craft that has seen pearls shine above the rest.
Although Hyderabad is not a coastal city, local merchants attribute the city's history and economy as crucial in keeping the pearl trade alive. Royal portraits illustrate princes adorned in pearls, and centuries of a vibrant pearl culture have given rise to artisans skilled in their trade. The able craftsmen, coupled with inexpensive labour, have enabled pearls to flourish in the city.
Although Ceylonese pearls were widely available in the past, in modern Hyderabad, the pearls most commonly available are Basra pearls from the Arabian Gulf and Chinese freshwater pearls.
The Abernathy Pearl is a natural freshwater pearl that is reputed to be the most flawless pearl ever discovered. Nicknamed "The Little Willie Pearl", the Abernathy was discovered in 1967 in the waters of the River Tay in Scotland by professional pearl diver Bill Abernathy. The pearl was on display for nearly three decades in a jewellery store in the Scottish city of Cairncross before it was sold in 1992 for an unidentified amount.
The Heurfana was an extraordinary Spanish Crown Jewel made more intriguing by the legend that it was discovered in a shell bed in the Gulf of Panama rather than inside an oyster. The pearl, said to be perfect in all aspects, was owned by the first female governor of Cuba, Doña Isabel de Bobadilla, and was destroyed in the burning of the Spanish palace in the 18th century.
Amongst famous Indian pearls, the collection of the Gaekwar of Baroda is famed for its sheer opulence. Created for the Maharaja of Baroda, Khande Rao Gaekwad, in the 1850s, the originally seven strand necklace was reduced to smaller strands, and created history in 2007 when a two strand necklace consisting of sixty eight of its finest pearls was auctioned for a record amount, more than double the previous record price.
Caring for Pearls