For the love of pearls

 Style, February 1996

When I was 12, my mother presented me with my first pearls: a small pendant in the form of a tiny cluster of creamy white “grapes” topped with two gold leaves. Mesmerized by the iridescent luster of my first piece of fine jewelry, I immediately developed a fondness for pearls that has never faded. For me, they are the symbol of grace, elegance and beauty in its simplest state. Warm to the touch, tender to the eye, they do not sparkle, they glow.

Because of their rare and extraordinary nature, pearls have captured the imagination through the ages. The ancient Greeks believed pearls were the result of lightning striking the sea. The Persians and Hindus thought they were drops from the moon fallen into the sea, bringing good luck and longevity. For the Hindus, the color of the pearl affected its attributes: white brought fame, golden tones brought wealth, blue meant good luck and flawed pearls led to misfortune. Mandarins, maharajahs, sheikhs, kings and emperors, queens and empresses  all considered pearls a symbol of majesty, opulence and power.

Before the Japanese learned to appreciate pearls, they used them solely for medicinal purposes: to cure stomach disorders, eye diseases or rheumatic pain and to stop hemorrhages. In 1881, the Maharajah of Tagore created a multitude of uses for burned pearl powder. Mixed with water, then dried and taken as snuff, it was used to cure headaches, cataracts and ulcers. Used as a toothpaste, it was believed to strengthen gums and make teeth “pearly” white. Rubbed into the skin with other medicinal powders, it was used to refine the complexion, stop bleeding and help cicatrization.

Of course, the consumption of pearls also made for grand gestures. According to legend, Cleopatra showed her undying love for Mark Antony by dissolving a prized pear-shaped bauble in a glass of wine and drinking it. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Thomas Gresham, in an attempt to impress the Spanish ambassador and show him the grandeur of the kingdom, reduced a £15,000 pearl to powder, mixed it with wine and raised it in a toast to the Queen. Then there was Barbara Hutton, the millionaire socialite who owned a necklace of 53 pearls once worn by Marie Antoinette. One day, when asked where they were, she replied, “The goose has them.” She went on to explain that Mr. Cartier (who had sold her the necklace) said that if a goose swallowed her pearls “they would come out with a brighter luster.”

Though it is not known exactly when pearls were discovered, we can assume this occurred at the same time people began prying open shellfish for nourishment. Fishermen in the Middle and Far East once supplemented their incomes by diving for pearls two months every year. Clad in only loincloths, divers were tied to the boat with a rope and lowered into the sea with large stones as ballast, baskets to hold the oysters, finger guards and nose clips. The men who opened the shells were required to be naked, to make certain they could not hide pearls in their clothing.

In the 15th century, Europeans developed a passion for pearls. By 1870, when African mines were producing large numbers of grand gemstones, pearls grew in value, sometimes fetching up to four times as much as diamonds of equal weight. Between the two world wars, Paris became the principal marketplace for fine pearls, drawing an important international clientele. In his book “La Perle et ses Secrets,” Jean Taburiaux states, “The Americans took the most beautiful pearls, small or large, which had to be perfect in shape, with a bright pinkish white color and of high quality. The Germans and Dutch liked small pearls of good shape, with clear colors but of lesser quality. Small pearls with perfect shape and color suited the Swiss, their perfectionism was reflected in their purchases. French women have always adored pearls, which must not be too big, too small, too creamy or too white; in short, the most difficult pearls to find.”

At the beginning of this century, pearl necklaces were worth as much as rare Rembrandts and other Old Master paintings. In at least one case, they were considered reasonable payment for real estate. According to accounts in Hans Nadelhoffer’s “Cartier: Jewelers Extraordinary,” Pierre Cartier wanted to buy a splendid six-story building on Fifth Avenue in New York, owned by banker Morton F. Plant. In 1917, Cartier offered Plant a two-strand pearl necklace, valued $1 million, in exchange for the building. Without hesitation the banker accepted.

The rapid expansion of the pearl trade took a heavy toll on nature. Local fisherman were exploited and often turned into slaves by Europeans lusting for nacreous treasure. In the 19th and 20th centuries, more modern equipment and ships resulted in such intensive pearl fishing that the world’s pearl-oyster beds were nearly destroyed. However, the stock market crash of 1929 drove prices down and many dealers went bankrupt, thus halting this disastrous course. At almost the same time, the cultured pearl industry was beginning to take hold.

The first attempts at producing cultured pearls date back to China in the 13th century. Europeans tried their hand in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the quality of their efforts was poor and every project was abandoned.

Because of the overwhelming demand for pearls, Kokichi Mikimoto created a way to keep the oyster beds from being depleted by “growing” pearls and developing a parallel market. Mikimoto invested all his assets and much of his lifetime trying to develop and perfect the cultivation of pearls. Octopi, cold tides and seaweed nearly wiped out his oysters, driving him to the brink of bankruptcy before he produced, in 1896, his first half-pearls, now referred to as “mabes.” It took 15 more years before he was able to produce a perfect sphere, indistinguishable from the natural pearl. Even after this success, Mikimoto continued to work on improving color and luster and accelerating the oysters’ growth function.

In Europe, Mikimoto’s work created a sensation. Disputes erupted worldwide. Many fine jewelers felt the method would threaten the value of the natural pearl. In London there was growing turmoil, with accusations of cleverly disguised fakes that would bring chaos and depression to the jewelry market. In Paris, malicious articles were published and attacks on cultured pearls were even more persistent. After much debate, however, the professional journals finally decreed that, except for the fact that a stimulant triggering the growth of pearls was artificially inserted to produce cultured pearls, there was absolutely no difference between Mikimoto’s work and nature’s own.

Then there are the “faux,” artificial pearls with a fancy French name. Though they weren’t popular until Coco Chanel introduced them to fashion in the 1930s, faux pearls can be traced back to the Venetians, who in the 16th century filled tiny glass beads with wax. In the 17th century, a Frenchman named Jaquin created the technique still used today. He coated glass beads with “essence d’orient,” a creamy liquid extracted from fish scales. The process was recently improved upon with “Majorca” pearls, beads coated with pearl essence, which replicates the luster.

So how do you tell whether you get the real thing for Valentine’s Day? Rub the pearls against your teeth (unless they’re capped teeth, in which case this doesn’t work). If they slide easily across, they’re “faux.” But if they feel slightly gritty, you know it’s true love.


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