Cherished as symbols of purity and perfection, pearls are the ultimate symbol of good taste. I adore pearls. As a jewelry designer I love all gems, their color and beauty is an inspiration. Brightly colored stones really get me, however; I am equally drawn to the subtle color of pearls. Their lustrous hues come in gold, aubergine and pistachio to platinum, white, and peacock.
For many years I have had a love affair with pearls. Sadly I overlooked them for a long time. I saw my fill of the small white choker length strand, paired with matching studs as the finishing touch to the sweater set. Unless you are going for “straight laced,” I suggest avoiding this look. For so long pearls just came across to me as “strict.”
I soon learned it was the opposite, pearls are vibrant and full of life. I had an “epiphany” about 8 years ago when I held a strand of Tahitian pearls. They were the size of jaw breaking gum balls – smooth, round and the most unbelievable colors! I have been seeking out unique pearls since, creating some of my favorite pieces.
Pearls are the only gem that doesn’t need to be cut or polished. If you are lucky and are vacationing in Tahiti order oysters on the half shell, if you are VERY lucky you may find a “ready made” miracle of a gem. This scenario is highly unlikely [although it has happened.] It takes thousands of oysters to find one pearl.
After a small irritant, like a grain of sand, gets into a shell it takes 4 to 8 years for a pearl to form. Most pearls found today are “cultured” pearls; meaning man “impregnates” the mollusk with a small bead of a shell rather than hoping for that stray bit of sand. Cultured or naturally formed the process is the same- protecting their soft body. The oyster builds up thin layers around the foreign object. These microscopically thin layers become the “nacre,” which creates the pearl’s unique color. It lets in and diffuses light creating an iridescent glow.
Pearls are found in freshwater rivers and lakes in America to the turquoise lagoons of the South Seas. The oceans near Australia, Tahiti and Fiji are home of my all time favorite pearls. A black lipped oyster the size of a large dinner plate called “Pinctada margaritifera” creates the silver and black “Tahitians” while the white lipped “Pinctada maxima” bears the white and golden “South Seas.”
“Akoya” are white perfectly round orbs. Indigenous to the waters around Japan, renowned as the “quintessential” pearl. “Kasumiga” and “Biwa” pearls are named after the freshwater lakes in Japan where they were discovered. Their pink, white and brown colors are so rich and their versatile shapes make them very fun to design with. Someday I dream of going on a “pearl tour” to visit all of these destinations.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom: Pearls started being made in prehistoric oceans a long time ago. The oldest known pearl is a fossilized discovery from over 90 million years ago. Many ancient cultures exhibited a robust appreciation for pearls, and pearl artifacts date back over 5,ooo years. From 200B.C. to A.D. 500 the Native American Hopewell Culture of southern Ohio accumulated prodigious quantities of pearls. Many beautiful examples of freshwater pearls strung on sinew and worn as necklaces have been discovered. Their radiant luster unharmed after being buried for thousands of years.
The ancient Greeks and Romans treated pearls as a commodity and were “obtained” from the far reaches of their empires. The whole Mediterranean caught on to the “craze” and a wide variety of jewelry and artifacts have been found embellished with pearls. A unique Roman characteristic is their taste for mixing pearls with emeralds.
The courts of Persia and India were resplendent with pearls. The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar were rich with these aquatic gems. Clothes and jewelry were lavishly adorned. The Hindu’s believed the pearls represented the moon, while in Islamic thought- pearls represented perfection and completeness. The Emperor Bahadur Shah II was always draped in many strands of ornate pearl necklaces.
Russia in the 17th and 18th century was opulent in the use of pearls. Steeped in Byzantine tradition, decorative fabrics and artifacts were heavily embellished with pearls. Noblewoman wore large headdresses, or kokoshniki, adorned with pearls, lace and colored gems. Queen Elizabeth I was always painted in her famous ruffled collar and many strands of pearls.
Johannes Vermeer’s famous portrait- “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” is one of the most intriguing paintings, often called the Dutch Mona Lisa. The pearl is an anchoring part of the composition. The paint creates a “life-like” luster that draws your eye in.
Coco Chanel made wearing many strands of pearls “in vogue”. She loved mixing real and fake together in a long layered look. One of the most famous pearls,”La Peregrina” has a very rich history. It fell into obscurity for some time then regained it’s reign as “most famous pearl” when Richard Burton presented it to Elizabeth Taylor as a birthday gift.
I can keep on going…There is so much that surrounds this true natural wonder. I will stop my rambling and leave you with two last “pearls of wisdom.” Always put on pearls last, they do not like perfume or hairspray, however; they love water. Salt water pearls should be rinsed in salty water on occasion. Often wipe your necklaces with a damp cloth before putting them away.
I recently took a trip to the Caribbean. On the first day I put pearl earrings on [with very secure safety backs], I swam every day in the ocean and my pearls loved it!