The pearl was the favored gem of the wealthy during the time of the Roman Empire. This intriguing gift from the sea had been brought back from the Orient by the Crusaders. Roman women wore pearls to bed so they could be reminded of their wealth immediately upon awakening. Pearls were once considered an exclusive privilege for royalty. A law of 1612 drawn up by the Duke of Saxony prohibited the wearing of pearls by nobility, professors, doctors or their wives.
On the other side of the world, pearls were being worn for adornment by the American Indians. The freshwater pearls of the Mississippi River were strung into necklaces, sewn onto headdresses and set into copper ornaments.
One of the largest saltwater pearls still in existence is the Hope Pearl, first acquired by Henry Philip Hope in the 19th century. It is two inches long, and varies between 31/4 and 41/2 inches in circumference. It is on display at the British Museum of Natural History.
An old Arab legend tells us that pearls were formed when dew drops filled with moonlight fell into the ocean and were swallowed by oysters. The modern scientific explanation is not nearly as romantic but still quite fascinating. A natural pearl (often called an Oriental pearl) forms when an irritant works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed.
A cultured pearl undergoes the same process. The only difference is that the irritant is a surgically-implanted mother-of-pearl bead or piece of shell. 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 no importance to beauty or durability.
Imitation pearls are a different story altogether. In most cases, a glass bead is dipped into a solution made from fish scales. This coating is thin and may eventually wear off. The island of Mallorca is known for its imitation pearl industry.
Fine natural pearls are quite rare. The Persian Gulf has always been the source of the finest natural saltwater pearls. Other sources are the waters around Sri Lanka, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela and the Micronesian Islands. Japan is the major source of cultured saltwater pearls, with Burma and Australia contributing to world supply. Freshwater pearls occur naturally, but in recent years a strong cultured pearl industry has sprung up for this product. Freshwater pearls are generally very irregular in shape, with a puffed rice appearance being the most common.
Classic Yet Fashionable
Pearls of all shapes and colors are a highly, versatile accessory for a modern woman's wardrobe. The classic, round pearl necklace is perfect for evening wear or suit dressing. Long strands may be doubled with the assistance of jewelled or gold clasps. They may also be twisted alone or with beads of other precious, gems for a striking accent. The most popular colors for round pearls are whites, creams and pinks. Silver, black and gold are gaining new interest.
Freshwater pearls occur in many colors and are often treated to produce more evenly-colored strands. These may be found in lovely peaches, lavenders, pinks and blues as well as white.
Rings, pendants, brooches and earrings are created with a wide range of pearl shapes-round, pear, egg, teardrop, half, three-quarter and blister. Baroque pearls, irregularly shaped pearls which don't fall into any, other category, often make beautiful subjects for rings and pendants because of their unique, flowing form.
Making A Wise Purchase
Since subtle differences in quality can make large differences in beauty (and price), it is important to select your jewelry from a professional who can guide you honestly and ethically in your purchase. Our firm is a member of the American Gem Society. As a condition of membership, we are re-examined each year to meet the Society's high standards for knowledge, professionalism and integrity. The AGS symbol is the hallmark of consumer protection within the jewelry profession - as it has been for over 50 years. Many gems are processed to enhance their natural beauty. Ask your American Gem Society jeweler to discuss which techniques might apply to the gem of your choice.