History Of Cultured Pearls
In this essay you'll learn about the history of pearls, how they form in oysters, and how cultured pearls are generally cultivated, harvested and processed for market.
Cultured pearls ... their very name conjures images of lustrous jewels nestled deep in oysters far below the surface of the sea. Yet cultured pearls are more than just jewels. Since the beginning of time, pearls have been revered as one of the world's most beautiful and magical gems. Today, cultured pearls are the foundation of every woman's jewelry wardrobe. Fashionable, feminine and fresh, cultured pearls truly enhance a woman's palette of styles.
Rich and adaptable, a lustrous star in the world of fine jewelry, a simple cultured pearl necklace can take a woman through every moment in her life, every outfit in her wardrobe. The possibilities are endless.
A Brief History Of Pearls
Many thousands of years ago, long before written history, human beings probably discovered the first pearl while searching the seashore for food. Throughout history, the pearl, with its warm inner glow and shimmering iridescence, has been one of the most highly prized and sought-after gems. Countless references to the pearl can be found in the religions and mythology of cultures from the earliest times. The ancient Egyptians prized pearls so much they were buried with them. Cleopatra reportedly dissolved a single pearl in a glass of wine and drank it, simply to win a wager with Mark Antony that she could consume the wealth of an entire nation in just one meal.
In ancient Rome, pearls were considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing. The Greeks held the pearl in high esteem for both its unrivaled beauty and its association with love and marriage. During the Dark Ages, while fair maidens of nobility cherished delicate pearl necklaces, gallant knights often wore pearls into battle. They believed the magic of these lustrous gems would protect them from harm. The Renaissance saw the royal courts of Europe awash in pearls. Because pearls were so highly regarded, a number of European countries actually passed laws forbidding anyone but the nobility to wear them.
During the European expansion into the New World, the discovery of pearls in Central American waters added to the wealth of Europe. Unfortunately, greed and lust for the sea-grown gems resulted in the depletion of virtually all the American pearl oyster populations by the 17th century. Until the early 1900's, natural pearls were accessible only to the rich and famous. In 1916, famed French jeweler Jacques Cartier bought his landmark store on New York's famous Fifth Avenue -- by trading two pearl necklaces for the valuable property.
But today, with the advent of pearl cultivation, pearls are available and affordable to all.
How Pearls Form In Oysters
The birth of a pearl is truly a miraculous event. Unlike gemstones or precious metals that must be mined from the earth, Pearls are grown by live oysters far below the surface of the sea. Gemstones must be cut and polished to bring out their beauty. But pearls need no such treatment to reveal their loveliness. They are born from oysters complete -- with a shimmering iridescence, luster and soft inner glow unlike any other gem on earth.
A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a parasite or piece of shell that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster's soft inner body where it cannot be expelled. To ease this irritant, the oyster's body takes defensive action. The oyster begins to secrete a smooth, hard crystalline substance around the irritant in order to protect itself. This substance is called "nacre." As long as the irritant remains within its body, the oyster will continue to secrete nacre around it, layer upon layer. Over time, the irritant will be completely encased by the silky crystalline coatings. And the result, ultimately, is the lovely and lustrous gem called a pearl.
How something so wondrous emerges from an oyster's way of protecting itself is one of nature's loveliest surprises. For the nacre is not just a soothing substance. It is composed of microscopic crystals of calcium carbonate, aligned perfectly with one another, so that light passing along the axis of one crystal is reflected and refracted by another to produce a rainbow of light and color.
Cultured pearls share the same properties as natural pearls. Oysters form cultured pearls in an almost identical fashion. The only difference is a person carefully implants the irritant in the oyster, rather than leaving it to chance. We then step aside and let nature create its miracle. How pearls are cultivated and harvested Early on, pearl cultivation depended entirely on wild oysters. Later you'll learn that, in some cases, the same applies today. But modern pearl cultivation has become more selective.
In Japanese pearl cultivation, scientists have isolated strains of oysters that possess superior pearl-producing qualities. These selectively bred oysters produce pearls of exceptional luster and color clarity. In a process referred to as "nucleation," also called "grafting" or "seeding," highly skilled technicians carefully open live pearl oysters, and with surgical precision make an incision in the oyster's body. Then, they place a tiny piece of "mantle tissue" from another oyster into a relatively safe location. Then, they place a small round piece of shell, or "nucleus," beside the inserted mantle tissue. The nucleus is a mother-of-pearl bead made from an American freshwater mussel. The cells from the mantle tissue develop around the nucleus forming a sac, which closes and starts to secrete nacre, the crystalline substance that forms the pearl. The nucleated oysters are then returned to the sea where, in sheltered bays rich in nutrients, they feed and grow, depositing layer after layer of lustrous nacre around the nuclei implanted within them. The oysters are given the utmost care during this time, while suspended in the water, from the rafts above. Technicians check water temperatures and feeding conditions daily at various depths, moving the oysters up or down as appropriate.
Periodically, the oysters are lifted from the sea for cleaning and health treatments. Seaweed, barnacles and other sea borne organisms that might interfere with their feeding are removed from the oysters' shells. The shells are also treated with medicinal compounds to discourage parasites. Over time, after many months of growth and care, the oysters are ready for harvest. Those that have survived the many perils of the sea are brought ashore and opened. And then, when everything has gone well, a beauty is revealed -- the result is a lovely, lustrous and very valuable cultured pearl.
How pearls are processed for market
Saltwater cultured pearls can never be a mass-produced, factory-like product. The whims of unpredictable Mother Nature do not allow it. Millions of oysters are nucleated every year, but only a small proportion live to produce fine-quality cultured pearls. Many oysters don't survive the nucleating process, Others are weak and fall prey to disease. Heavy rains may flood the bays with fresh water, reducing their salinity, and killing the oysters. Sometimes, certain species of phytoplankton undergo explosive growth, creating the dreaded "red tide," which exhausts the oxygen in the water, and suffocates the oysters. Then there are typhoons, the attacks of predators and parasites, lack of sufficient nutrients in the water.
On average, only 50 percent of nucleated oysters survive to bear pearls, and of them, only 20 percent bear pearls that are marketable. The rest are simply too imperfect, too flawed to be called jewels. And so, a perfect pearl is truly a rare event, blessed by Nature. Less than 5 percent of nucleated oysters yield pearls of such perfect shape, luster and color as to be considered fine gem quality.
These are the precious treasures of pearl cultivation, the rare prizes of any jewelry collection. After harvesting, gem quality pearls must be sorted. Because no two pearls are ever exactly alike, sorting pearls is an extremely difficult and time-consuming effort performed by experts. Each pearl must be sorted by size, shape, color and luster, so it is handled hundreds of times. After sorting, the pearls are drilled with great care and precision. An inexperienced operator can split or ruin pearls with careless handling. A hole drilled even slightly off-center can ruin a necklace or other piece of jewelry that depends upon the symmetry of its assembly of pearls. Finally, it's time for matching and stringing. This can be even more difficult than sorting, because now experts must compare pearls that are similar in size, shape, luster and color -- looking for nearly exact matches. The art of assembling pearls into a necklace, a pair of earrings or other jewelry calls for refined skills in matching. Only highly trained experts with years of experience can perform this task. To find 47 pearls for a perfectly matched 16-inch necklace, a pearl processor must cull through more than 10,000 pearls.
Cultured Pearl Products
In this essay you'll learn about Akoya, South Sea, and Tahitian cultured pearls -- three kinds of pearls that together satisfy the entire range of customer desires. You'll learn about the history of each type of pearl, some details on the ways each is cultivated, harvested and processed, and the special qualities each possesses.