A History of Cultured Pearls

The luminosity and luster of pearls along with the warmth they emit when worn against your skin has made pearls one of the most popular gems throughout history. While pearls are in abundant supply today, before the 1920s pearls were hard to come by. That’s because they were formed naturally by mollusks when they got an irritant in their shell. To relieve the annoyance from the intruder, the mollusk formed a coating of nacre over the offending invader which then formed a pearl. It was reason to rejoice when a natural pearl was found because they were so rare. Divers who hunted for these treasures often came up empty handed because it was hit or miss as to whether or not a mollusk would actually have a pearl.

Pearls were so hard to come by that at one time they were the rarest of all gems, reserved for royalty, but that changed thanks to a name that is familiar to many of us – Kokichi Mikimoto, a Japanese vegetable farmer turned pearl farmer. He is widely credited with developing cultured pearls. A cultured pearl is formed when a human places an irritant in a mollusk prompting it to create nacre that forms a pearl, rather than waiting for an act of nature as happens when natural pearls are formed.

How Cultured Pearls Started

Mikimoto was not alone in his quest to culture pearls. Two other visionaries in Japan also contributed to pearl farming: Dr. Tokichi Nishikawa, a marine biologist and Tatsuhei Mise, a carpenter. Both men, working independently of each other at around the same time in the early 1900s, came up with very similar processes to nucleate mollusks inducing them to produce pearls.

In 1902 Mise nucleated 15,000 mollusks, which two years later produced round cultured pearls. He applied for a patent and received the first patent for the production of round cultured pearls. Concurrently, Nishikawa was implanting oysters with nuclei and his method also produced small round cultured pearls. He was granted a patent for the implantation process. Both Mise and Nishikawa used similar nuclei to start the culturing process. Mise used lead and silver nuclei, while Nishikawa used gold and silver in his method. Their pearl culturing process was so similar that it became known as the Mise-Nishikawa method.

Meanwhile, Mikimoto was trying his hand at growing cultured pearls. He used mother-of-pearl as the nuclei in akoya oysters. Mikimoto patented his process in 1908. Four years later he tried the same method on pinctada margaritifera and pinctada maximus oysters. Mikimoto then tried using the Mise-Nishikawa method of nucleation and cultured pearls began to form. By 1921, cultured pearls were on the market. It’s one of the reasons that fashionable women of the Art Deco period were able to adorn themselves with long ropes of pearls, the gems were now readily available at an accessible price point.

However, like any new technology, cultured pearls had their critics. A London-based newspaper wrote an article claiming that cultured pearls were not “real”. The article triggered a dispute over the validity of cultured pearls that resulted in a lawsuit that drew international attention to these gems. Mikimoto won the lawsuit and cultured pearls were on their way to reaching a new popularity never experienced before due to their lack of availability and stratospheric prices.

Cultured Pearl Farms

Today, it is very rare to find a natural pearl unless it is vintage; cultured pearls rule the market. So how exactly are pearls cultured? On pearl farms — in oceans, rivers and lakes — baby mollusks are raised in large nets until they are mature enough to be nucleated, which takes about two years. Skilled technicians then gently and carefully implant a nuclei into the mollusk. From there the mollusk is placed back in the water.

The mollusks are nurtured in the water for anywhere from 6 months to a couple of years. The longer the mollusk remains in the water the larger the pearl. Some pearls are farmed in saltwater while others are farmed in freshwater. The type of water makes a difference in the way a finished pearl looks. Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and French Polynesia, which includes Tahiti, all produce saltwater pearls. These tend to be higher quality, better shaped and more lustrous than other pearls. Saltwater pearls tend to be white, cream, golden or gray.

Freshwater pearls are cultured in rivers, lakes and ponds. These pearls are mostly grown in China and they tend to have a thicker nacre than saltwater pearls. They are often slightly irregular in shape and don’t have the high luster that is so desirable in pearls. They do come in many colors and shapes.

Both saltwater and freshwater cultured pearls can be quite beautiful. It really comes down to how much money you want to spend and your personal preferences. With a wide array of cultured pearls on the market today, you’re sure to find something that suits your style.

Featured image (top of page): Cultured pearl necklace with a diamond and 18-karat gold bow, courtesy Paul Fisher, Inc.

Authored by Amber Michelle

All jewelry showcased in this blog is available on The Jewelers Circle.

The Wonder of Natural Pearls

Natural pearl and diamonds set in silver topped gold bangle, circa 1880, Photo Courtesy: Faerber-Collection.

In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra bet Roman general Marc Antony that she could host the most expensive dinner party ever. According to the story by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naturalist, when the two sat down to dinner, a cup of wine (or possibly vinegar) was placed on the table with one of two large natural pearl earrings that Cleopatra always wore. Cleopatra crushed the pearl, dropped it in the liquid and once it had dissolved, drank it. Needless to say, she won the bet. Pliny the Elder, considered to be one of the world’s first gemologists, noted that the pearls were highly valuable – worth what would be millions in modern dollars.

Reserved for Royalty

While pearls are found in abundance in today’s world, that was not always the case. Pearls were so rare at one time that they were reserved for royalty, no one else could really afford them. At the time, all pearls were natural so it took an accident of nature to create a pearl, there was no human intervention involved in the development of natural pearls.

These precious gems were formed when a speck of sand, or some sort of organic material found its way into a mollusk. The intruding matter irritated the mollusk and in order to soothe the irritation, the mollusk produced nacre to cover the offending material. As layers of nacre collect, a pearl is formed. Nacre is a combination of the mineral argonite, which is calcium carbonate, and conchiolion, a protein secreted by mollusks.

Most pearls on the market now are cultured. Cultured pearls come from pearl farms and they form when a technician places an irritant into the mollusk so that it will begin creating the nacre that forms the pearl. The mollusks are tended by the farmers who keep them safe from predators and make sure that the water has the proper nutrients. Cultured pearls are the reason that we have readily available access to these gifts from the water at an accessible price point.

While it’s easy enough to find cultured pearls now, finding those natural wonders before cultured pearls were developed was another matter. Pearl divers went deep into the waters — as far down as 100 feet — to find these treasures, sometimes not making it back to the surface. When a pearl was discovered it was cause for celebration, demand was high and pearls were scarce.  Natural pearls have always been rare and what you find on the market today is generally vintage making those pearls even more rare and expensive.

Elizabeth Taylor’s Natural Pearl

Among the best-known natural pearls is La Peregrina. The 50.56-carat pearl has a storied background. Said to have been found in the 1500s in the Gulf of Panama, it was owned by the Spanish royal family for several generations and Britain’s Queen Mary I before finding its way into the jewelry collections of Joseph Bonaparte of France and later Prince Louis Napoleon of France as well as the British Duke of Abercorn. Eventually La Peregrina surfaced at an auction in New York City in 1969 where it was purchased by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor. Ms. Taylor was a true jewelry connoisseur, whose vast collection was filled with outstanding pieces. She also liked a lot of bling, so in 1972, Ms. Taylor and Cartier designer Al Durante created a necklace with diamonds, rubies and cultured pearls to showcase La Peregrina. The necklace was sold at Christie’s New York in 2011 for $11.8 million.

The Baroda Pearls, another famous jewelry example of natural pearls, were among the most expensive jewelry items in the world at the time. The seven-strand natural pearl necklace was part of the collection of the Maharajah of Baroda, an important jewelry collector of the 1800s. The legendary pearls were widely chronicled at the time and were among the most expensive pieces of jewelry of the era. In 2007, the two remaining strands of the Baroda Pearls were auctioned off at Christie’s New York selling for $7 million.

How do you know if a pearl is natural? To verify that a pearl is natural it should be examined with the proper gemological equipment. If you’re considering purchasing a natural pearl, ask for a lab report from a reputable gemological laboratory for assurance that the pearls are what they are represented to be.

Authored by Amber Michelle

The Elegance of Edwardian Jewelry

Diamond and Platinum Edwardian Era Bow Brooch, Photo Courtesy: Paul Fisher, Inc.

Opulent, Refined, Luxurious, Lifestyles of the Rich and Royal, White, Platinum, Pearls, Diamonds all defined the Edwardian era.

WHEN: 1901-1915, the Edwardian era officially began during the reign of King Edward VII in 1901 (although he was coronated in 1902) and ended with the start of World War I in 1914/1915, historians vary as to the exact dates. Edward, the son of Queen Victoria, began to take on many official duties after Prince Albert, the Queen’s husband and Edward’s father, died. The Edwardian style began to develop in the late 1800s and blossomed during his reign. Even though this same time period was known as the Belle Epoque in other parts of Europe and as the Gilded Age in the United States, the jewelry had the same design aesthetic.

FAMOUS MAKERS: Boucheron, Cartier, Chaumet, Fabergé, Garrads, LaCloche, Marcus & Co., Tiffany & Co.

MOTIFS: Bows, Ribbons, Garlands, Laurel Wreaths, Florals, Feathers and Tassels, Stars, Millegrain

THE LOOK: White-on-white platinum with pearls and/or diamonds, light and lacy, intricate, formal and regal

MATERIALS: Platinum, Pearls, Diamonds, Pink Topaz, Peridot, Demantoid Garnet, Amethyst, Turquoise, Blue Sapphire, Ruby , Emerald, Aquamarine, Kunzite, Opal, Moonstone and Alexandrite

King Edward was known for his love of luxury and revelry. There were many parties and celebrations during his reign and dressing up was required. Not just dressing up to look good, but dressing up to show your rank in society and your respect for the rank of those around you.

Status-conscious Edwardians were not shy about piling on jewelry. If you want to see layering at its best, look at women of the Edwardian era. They started with a choker or dog collar and then added more necklaces of varying lengths that dropped to the waist, or longer. The dog collar was particularly popular as Edward’s wife Queen Alexandra favored the style to hide a scar on her neck and others followed suit.

Brooches and pins were also popular, with fashionable Edwardians wearing numerous pins during the day on their bodice, as epaulets and in their hair. It was also customary to wear a few bracelets stacked together on each arm along with several rings.

For an evening event, along with all the other jewelry, tiara’s, jeweled combs or other hair ornaments were worn. Tiara’s were especially important if royalty (king, queen, prince or princess), or upper echelon nobility was present. And for evening, bigger brooches were worn, often a few at a time, with star motifs being favored.

There were a number of technological events in the Edwardian era and two that made a big impact on jewelry and fashion. In 1903, the high heat oxyacetylene torch was invented. The torch was able to easily heat platinum to its melting point, allowing jewelers to stretch the metal until it became very thin. Platinum, which is a very strong metal was then formed into delicate, but very elaborate settings. It was also pierced to create openwork adding to the lightness of the pieces both aesthetically and in terms of weight. Jewelry created in the Edwardian era is surprisingly light weight given its larger sizes.

A second major technical advancement was availability of electricity. It made a big change in fashion. Heavy fabrics, brocades and velvets in dark colors that were beautiful by candlelight looked dreary and drab under electric lights. They were replaced by pastel colors and lighter fabrics such as silk or taffeta. These new styles were the perfect backdrop for the intricate, openwork jewelry of the era.

Diamonds and pearls were two of the most used gems in Edwardian jewelry. Set in platinum they reinforced the era’s formal white-on-white design aesthetic. The diamond mines in South Africa were producing an abundant supply of diamonds making them readily available and cost effective to use in jewelry design.

Pearls on the other hand were much more rare as cultured pearls had not yet been perfected and brought to market. Pearls were natural and much harder to come by making them scarce and far more valuable than other gems.

When World War I erupted, the gracious and luxurious lifestyle of the Edwardian era came to an abrupt end.

Authored by Amber Michelle