Pearls may be the world’s oldest gems. Unlike crystal gemstones, which have to be worked before becoming beautiful and usable, pearls arrived from the water in a finished form, ready to enjoy. Natives needed very little skill to drill a hole through the relatively soft pearl to produce a pendant or necklace.
In the beginning, pearls were all naturals, accidents of nature occurring when an oyster or mussel reacted to a foreign object that it was unable to expel. To protect itself, the mollusk coated the irritant with nacre (mother of pearl) to make it smooth.
Beginning with Mikimoto in the 1890s, various people found ways to induce pearl production by inserting round shell beads into oysters. Once the mollusks coated the beads with nacre, the new products became “cultured pearls.” Fred Ward’s book on pearls clearly illustrates the history of pearls as well as the different types: natural, cultured, saltwater, freshwater, South Seas, and black pearls. The islands surrounding Tahiti are most famous for black pearls, although they are grown in other places. Pearls occur in a number of other colors; pink, white, silver, yellow, gold, cream, and blue. Different countries prefer different colors, and there is a market attempt to deliver colors that sell. Historically, cultured pearls up to 10mm were produced in Japan and those from 10 to 20mm, called South Sea Pearls, came from farms throughout the Pacific.
Today cultured pearls dominate the world pearl market. Now natural pearls are sought by collectors who want the best and a buyers in Middle East countries who do not view cultured pearls as “real.” A few years ago, Mr. Ward visited the world’s largest collector of natural Persian Gulf pearls in Qatar.
For the first several thousand years of pearl use, all pearls were naturals. Saltwater naturals, which used to come mainly from the Persian Gulf, were also sought by divers around India, Panama, and Mexico. Freshwater naturals were best known from the rivers of Scotland, continental Europe, and the Tennessee and Mississippi River valleys in the US.
Housed in the fabulous Crown Jewels of Iran collection in Tehran, the Persian Gulf pearls were used during the reign of various Shahs as inventory to be used as needed when making crowns and other regal jewelry. The Iranian government has once again opened the collection of several hundred thousand gems, crowns, turban ornaments, thrones, and tiara to the public.
South Sea Pearls are considered the grandest of all cultured pearls. Utilizing the huge oysters that flourish in the warm clean waters of the Pacific, a new generation of pearl farmers revolutionized what had been merely an extension of the Japanese pearl trade. The Japanese originally expanded into the South Seas after World War II as a means of growing larger, more profitable pearls. Once they began farming in Burma and Australia, they kept their techniques secret, employing only Japanese technicians and technology and exporting the pearl crops back to Kobe for marketing.
Then, directed by a group of young Australian pearlers, South Sea pearl farming entered a new era. Gaining more control of their pearl farms and marketing, the Aussies evaluated oyster husbandry in order to make larger and more perfect pearls. They dismissed much of what they had learned from the Japanese and established new implantation, tending, and harvesting protocols to grow more, larger, and better pearls. Consequently, the Australians are making the finest cultured pearls ever grown, absolutely round, up to 20mm in diameter, with great luster and surfaces.
By far most of the world’s cultured pearls are freshwater pearls produced in China, an estimated 1500 tons a year. Chinese pearl farmers are industrious and creative. From the 1970s until now, they have improved their product until today they routinely culture great pearls, which are large, round, lustrous, colorful, with metallic-like surfaces. Much of the controversy during the past few years has been how the Chinese are producing large round freshwater pearls. The answer is, “anyway they can.” Some are traditionally tissue-nucleated. Others are nucleated with shell beads (like saltwater pearls), with old rounded pearls, and some with wax spheres. Never before has there been such variety.
The last of the great pearl types are the dramatic black, gray, and now multicolored beauties first available from Tahiti and now cultured on a variety of tropical islands from Tahiti all the way to Hawaii. Black Tahitian pearls generally cost less than comparable South Sea Pearls. Tahitian pearls are usually not a woman’s first purchase. But sophisticated buyers typically want a black strand in their collections. Among several recent popular innovations are new colors such as chocolate, “metallic” lustre and surfaces, and faceting. For a memorable fashion statement, consider them all.