The History of Pearls
The history of pearls dates as far back as ancient Egypt. It is suspected that their discovery came about whilst searching for food. Ever since their discovery, pearls have been celebrated by different cultures throughout the course of human history across all corners of the globe.
In ancient Egypt pearls were regarded as extremely precious and they were prized above all other gems. Cleopatra famously declared that she could host the most expensive dinner that there had ever been. With an empty plate, she dropped a single pearl earring into a goblet of vinegar where it dissolved. Cleopatra proceeded to pick up her goblet and drink from it. During this time, this pearl had an estimated equivalent value of 9 million dollars.
In 400BC the Ancient Greeks also cherished the pearl and it was believed that pearls were the tears of the gods. Ancient Greek culture also believed that wearing pearls would prevent women from crying on their wedding day. Much like today during Ancient Greece, pearls were synonymous with ideas of love and romance.
By 40AD during the Roman era pearls were still highly sought-after items owned only by the elites of Roman society as only persons of certain ranks could wear pearls. Their value had also not declined and the Roman general Vitellius famously paid for an entire military campaign through the sale of one of his mother’s pearl earrings.
In the 1500’s European renaissance it was illegal for anyone not of nobility to own pearls. The production of replicate or fake pearls was also strictly forbidden and punishment for committing this crime would result in losing one’s own hand.
Whilst losing your hand over the matter of a pearl is extreme, these precious gems were extremely rare and only sourced naturally from the few oysters which were found to have produced them.
It was not until 1906 that Australian William Saville-Kent started to master the technique of round pearl cultivation. This was the start of a transformation in the accessibility of this precious gem and the shifting landscape surrounding its production and price. From 1890 to 1893, he succeeded in making hemispherical pearls however,he passed away in 1908 and so these technological advances were stunted by his death.
Natural pearls were becoming increasingly harder to find as overfishing made these oysters and consequent pearls even more difficult to source and so the development of cultivated pearls could not come sooner.
Whilst many attempts were made to cultivate pearls none were commercially successful on a large scale until the technology was developed in Japan. Kokichi Mikimoto who dealt in natural pearls began experimenting with cultivated pearls. After extensive testing and plenty of failure he mastered a successful technique and patented his technology, “Method of pearl formation”. Mikimoto subsequently opened a number of pearl culturing farms in order to produce pearls on an industrial scale.
From this, the world of pearls and pearl jewellery was transformed as pearls became widely accessible to not just the rich or the royal but almost everyone. Soon there was no difference between a natural pearl or a cultivated pearl and so the prestige and value of natural pearls dramatically declined.
In 1917 a Pierre Cartiere natural pearl necklace held the value of 1.5 million dollars. It was sold to Daisy Plant in exchange for her entire 53rd Avenue home. 40 years later after the rise in cultured pearls the necklace was sold at auction for just 157k dollars.
These days natural pearl necklaces are a rarity and consequently demand a higher price than cultured pearl items. It is the rarity of natural pearls which makes them so sought after today, their aesthetic is largely the same as their cultured pearl counterparts.
Oysters make pearls as a defence to foreign objects. Cultivated pearls exploit this natural process as foreign bodies are deliberately inserted to into the Oyster in order to kick start this process. The oyster reacts to this by producing several layers of nacre or mother of pearl which layer around the inserted nucleus or tissue. This nacre is made from the same material which forms inside of the shell, largely composed of calcium carbonate and protein.
Unlike Akoya pearls which are sourced from oysters living in saltwater, multiple pearls can be grown from a single freshwater mussel. This means that good quality freshwater pearls can be produced at a more affordable price than the Akoya pearls.
Despite this the production of pearls is still a lengthy and complicated process. Only about half of the oysters or mussels that are seeded will survive and produce pearls and not all of these will meet the standards required for jewellery. The pearls then have to be sorted by machine and then by hand to match them against other pearls of the same shape, size and lustre.
Different Types of Pearls
As the name suggests Freshwater pearls are grown in lake and rivers in predominately China, Japan and the USA in mussels rather than oysters. Whilst freshwater pearls were once less desired due to their inconsistent shape and blemished appearance and feel, advances in the cultivation process now means that this is no longer an issue. Freshwater pearls are now round or baroque shapes and come in white or natural pastel colours with a soft gentle lustre. During their production, each freshwater mussel can produce up to 50 pearls (unlike saltwater oysters which only produce one) making these freshwater pearls the most affordable pearl and increasingly popular for every day wear pearl jewellery.
Grown in The French Polynesia Tahitian pearls are famously dark. Sometimes known as black pearls however, these pearls come in a range of colours from shades of green to coppers to purples. Tahitian pearls are still quite rare and come in various shapes which are still sought after and highly valuable today used to make a wide selection of pearl jewellery.
Cultivated around the islands of French Polynesia, Tahitian pearls are famously dark in colour. The larger black lipped oysters produce a larger than average pearl, which are naturally dark, so sometimes known as black pearls, however these pearls come in a range of colours from shades of green to coppers to purples. Tahitian pearls come in various shapes and those of high quality are quite rare and sought after being highly valued today and used to make a wide selection of pearl jewellery.
Akoya pearls, are what most people identify as a classic cultured pearl. The cultivating process refined by Mikimoto in the 1920’s produces a round pearl by inserting a nucleus or bead into the Akoya pearl oyster, with Japan and Australia being the largest producers. They are well known for their perfect spherical shape, natural colours and excellent reflective lustre. Worn by the most glamorous and famous of faces in recent decades such as Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy.
The Southsea pearl is the most luxurious and sought-after pearl. Cultivated within the large White-lipped oyster and the Gold-lipped oyster, the pearls are both the largest and most lustrous in natural shades of white, silver, champagne and gold. Found in Indonesia, the Philippines and most famously northern Australia these pearls are the largest of all pearl types. They come in a variety of shapes all of which are extremely valuable but the most highly sought after are the perfectly round Southsea pearls.
What to look for in a Pearl / Pearl Grading
The bigger the pearl the more valuable it will be. Matching large pearls for pearl jewellery can generate a high price.
Larger pearls take longer to cultivate, and therefore the bigger the pearl, the more valuable it will be, although the other factors such as shape, surface quality and lustre must be considered. Matching large pearls for pearl jewellery can generate a high price.
The rounder the pearl, the rarer the pearl and this makes them more valuable than their less spherical counterparts. But in terms of fashion, different shapes of pearls are popular amongst different people, with many designers creating wonderful jewellery from Baroque and Keshi pearls.
A pearl’s lustre is the glow and shine of the pearl. Bigger and rounder pearls with thicker levels of nacre will generally have a greater lustre. This is because they reflect more light and simultaneously show the depths of colour on the pearl’s surface. This effect is completely unique to pearls and unlike any other gemstone. All pearls will have some lustre but the extent to which will vary across each type of pearl and each pearl itself.
Pearls come in a wide variety of colours and is therefore down to personal preference when selecting. The different species of oysters or mussels will only produce specific natural colours, which can also be dependent on environmental conditions. To accommodate different market requirements, you may find some pearls are dyed rather than having a natural colour. Most dyes maintain the lustre and can produce stunning colours to meet fashions. Whether natural or dyed, the colour is enhanced by the ability for the pearl to reflect light. This ability is what makes pearls look as though they are glowing from the inside out. This glow shows off the many different colours that sit within the layers of nacre in a pearl which give pearls their unique depth and complexity of colours. Some pearls even feature what is known as an orient which reflects light in such a way it creates a rainbow of colours across the pearls surface.
The finish of a pearl’s surface is also a key factor when considering its value. The smoother the surface the more desirable the pearl is. It is rare to find an entirely smooth pearl with no surface blemishes or irregularities, it is the extent to which these blemishes can be seen/affect the look of the pearl that will dictate its possible drop in value. For pearl jewellery, these blemishes can often be hidden by setting the pearl in a particular way or style.
Checking the nacre quality of the pearl is a matter of establishing if the nucleus or bead in the centre of the pearl is visible. If it is then the nacre is too thin and it looks like a dark patch within the pearl. Not only is this a problem in terms of the nacre but it will also affect the quality of the pearl’s lustre and make it more likely to chip or blemish or peel. Nacre is the natural makeup of a pearl formed in layers built up over the years as the oyster is harvested. Like an oak tree, pearls create layered rings of nacre. The more layers there are the thicker the nacre will be, the larger the pearl will grow and the more the lustre will shine and glow from it.
Nacre is the natural makeup of a pearl, formed in layers built up over the years before the oyster is harvested. Like an oak tree, pearls create layered rings of nacre, so a higher quality pearl will have been given more time to grow larger depositing more layers of nacre before harvesting. The nacre quality affects the quality of the pearl’s lustre, the thicker the nacre the more the lustre will shine and glow. If the nucleus or bead in the centre of the pearl is visible, then the nacre is too thin, and it looks like a dark patch within the pearl. Not only is this a problem in terms of the nacre but it also makes it more likely to chip, blemish or peel.
How to Care for Pearls
Pearls are a natural substance sourced from living creatures which means that they require careful treatment and long-term care.
Whilst it is important to make sure that your pearls are kept clean it is also vital not to use harsh cleaning materials. Pearls are made from the natural substance of nacre which can be easily damaged from strong chemicals found in cleaning products, perfumes and beauty products.
Apply perfumes or and moisturisers before putting on pearls.
Don’t clean your pearls too often as this can remove the natural lustre
When removing pearls gently wipe them with a lint free cloth
To clean use warm mild soapy water. Do not use harsh detergents or chemicals and do not submerge the pearls in water.
Our Pearl Services
At GoldArts we offer a range of pearl services ranging from restringing to redesign.
Restringing – Our pearl specialists are able to restring your pearls on any silk string for a fresher new look or to make existing pearl jewellery more robust.
Redesigns- Here at Gold Arts we are experts at pearl redesign. Many people have much loved pearl jewellery that they no longer wear because they feel it is out dated or not in keeping with their personal style. We are able to alter or completely re-design your pear jewellery using pre-existing pearls. You may have pearl jewellery which has a sentimental meaning that you want re crafted into a new look or completely transformed design. We are happy to be of assistance and expertise.
Acquire pearls – If you have pearl jewellery which is missing pearls or you would like to add pearls to your jewellery, we are experts in sourcing and matching pearls to fit with your necklace, bracelet or any other type of pearl jewellery. We ensure that the pearls we source match in shape, size and lustre so as not to disrupt the original design and style of your pearl item.
Pearls are one of the amazing consequences of mother nature and the elusive beauty produced by the natural world. Pearls have captured the interest of people across the globe throughout the course of human history. Their captivating glow and unique lustre has meant humans have sought to adorn themselves in pearls since their discovery in Ancient times. This holds true today as pearls are still known to be a timeless accessory taking the form of necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings and more. Browse our beautiful selection of beautiful pearl jewellery and range of Jersey Pearl Jewellery