Fresh Water Pearls. Aphrodite’s tears of joy, dew drops filled with moonlight, Krishna’s wedding gift to his daughter, Cleopatra’s love potion. The legends abound but one fact is undeniable, Pearls are the oldest known gem, and for centuries were considered the most valuable. So valuable that the Roman General Vitellius allegedly financed an entire military campaign with just one of his mother’s Pearl earrings.
The Romans were particularly enamored of this gem of the sea and Rome’s Pearl craze reached its zenith during the first century BC when upper class Roman women (the lower ranks were forbidden from wearing them) wore their pearls to bed so they could be reminded of their wealth immediately upon awakening. They also upholstered couches with pearls and sewed so many into their gowns that they actually walked on their pearl-encrusted hems. The famously excessive Emperor Caligula, having made his beloved horse a consul, decorated it with a Pearl necklace.
The first known source of Pearls was the Persian Gulf and the ancients of the area believed that Pearls were a symbol of the moon and had magical powers. Indeed, the oldest known Pearl jewelry is a necklace found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC.
The earliest written record of their value is in the Shu King, a 23rd-century BC Chinese book in which the scribe sniffs that a lesser king sent tribute of “strings of pearls not quite round”. The Chinese also used pearls in medicinal ways to cure eye ailments, heart trouble, indigestion, fever and bleeding. To this day pearl powder is still popular in China as a skin whitener and cosmetic. In India, pearls were believed to give peace of mind and strength of body and soul. Europeans thought that swallowing whole or powdered pearls cured matters of the mind and heart, and strengthened nerves.
Traditionally worn as strings, or set as pendants, today pearl rings are also popular particularly with the rare and unusual black pearls.
The Koran states that a good Muslim, upon entering the Kingdom of Heaven, “is crowned with pearls of incomparable luster, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls”.
During the Dark Ages, while fair maidens of nobility cherished delicate pearl necklaces, gallant knights often wore pearls onto the battlefield. They believed that the magic possessed by the lustrous gems would protect them from harm.
While Queen Isabella had to hock her impressive collection of jewelry to fund Christopher Columbus’ expedition to discover the new world, the investment paid off as the discovery of Pearls in Central American waters added to the wealth of Spain. The flood of American Pearls on to the European market earned the newly discovered continent the nickname “Land of Pearls”. Unfortunately, greed and lust for the sea gems resulted in the depletion of virtually all the American pearl oyster populations by the 17th Century.
But then in 1919, the son of a Japanese noodle maker perfected and patented a method of cultivating Pearls and production of the gems of the sea turned from a treasure hunt into an industry.
A natural Pearl (sometimes called an Oriental pearl) forms when an irritant works its way into a particular species of mollusk that is actually closer to a scallop than an oyster. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating (known as nacre) is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed.
A cultured pearl undergoes the same process. The only difference being that the irritant is a surgically implanted mother-of-pearl bead or nuclei. The best nucleus comes from a Mississippi mussel that only lives in that famed waterway. The core is, therefore, much larger than in a natural pearl. As long as there are enough layers of nacre to result in a beautiful, gem-quality Pearl, the size of the nucleus is of little importance to beauty or durability.
Pearls have long been considered ideal wedding gifts because they symbolize purity and innocence. In the Hindu religion, the presentation of an un-drilled Pearl and its piercing has formed part of the marriage ceremony. While in the western hemisphere Pearls are the recommended gift for couples celebrating their third and 30th wedding anniversaries.
Almost every Pearl on the market these days is cultured. It’s only at antique auctions that you’re likely to come across “naturals”. Cultured Pearls are still “real” pearls they’ve simply had a helping hand from mankind.
Fakes are usually made from ground fish scales and can be easily detected with the simple tooth test. Gently scrape the pearls along the ridges of your top teeth. If it glides easily, it’s fake. If you feel a slight gritty abrasiveness, it’s most likely cultured or natural.
Saltwater Pearls are usually more expensive than freshwater with Akoya Japanese Pearls the most popular. South Sea Pearls are typically much larger than Akoyas, and if you’re buying black then they probably come from Tahiti.
Fresh Water Pearls are available in a far wider color range than saltwater, including purple, violet, orange, blue and gray. They are cheaper to produce as each mollusk can yield up to 30 pearls per harvest! American freshwaters are allowed to mature for much longer than all other cultured pearls (up to 5 years, compared to 1 year for most others) resulting in a thicker nacre which gives American pearls an unusually high luster and orient (the iridescence from the light reflected from the inside of the pearl).
White-pink Pearls with orient attain the highest prices but with the huge variety of colors available today it’s best to choose that which compliments your skin tone and hair color.
Be sure to check Pearls under several different light sources, against a dark background. Roll the Pearls around to make sure that the luster is uniform throughout. Minor blemishes may be buffed or washed away. Pearls are very porous and will soak up just about any substance they come in contact with, especially perfume and cosmetics.