Like jade, this opalescent gem, lustrous scion of the humble oyster, is attributed with magical, restorative powers and taste. One Roman noble pressingly offered his guests powdered pearl cordials at his frequent bacchanalian feasts, no doubt to titillate their libidos, the better to participate in his orgiastic dos. The oyster itself still has clout as something of an aphrodisiac.
Cleopatra, in one of her capricious moods, was believed to have swallowed a pearl worth a Queen’s ransom. Why she did is debatable but the lady had enough beauty tricks up her asp-clasped sleeve to preserve her potent allure as vamp of the Nile.
The lady of Chinese mythology, Chang’er, pinched and swallowed the pearl of eternity from her husband and fearing his wrath, fled to the moon to become Goddess of the Lunar landscape. He had a change of heart and pursued her. Legend has it that on a clear night, they can both be seen sitting on the terrace of the Moon Palace watching the rising of the Earth.
Powerful stuff which goes no end in enhancing the value of the gem among both ancients and moderns. Chinese love to drink potions infused with powdered pearl believing it to be a restorative for stomach ailments and yet others believe it to be a powerful charm against pestilence. It is still a tradition to place a pearl in the mouth of the deceased. Hence the penchant for Chinese girls to be named pearl. The Ah Choo in many a story refers not to the sneezing propensity but is the dialect name for this gem of mollusc irritation.
Arabs subscribe to it as a universal panacea and in 1669, a famous French chemist wrote that “pearls make an excellent cordial that strengthens the balsam of life, resists poison and putrefaction, clears the spirits and are so famous that men in the greatest agonies are refreshed thereby”.
The colours of pearl also took on symbolic meanings in the Middle Ages when so much explanation of life was ascribed to natural phenomena. Gold pearl was an emblem of wealth, white for idealism, black for philosophy, pink for beauty, red for health and energy and gray for thought.
When worn at the neck, pearl was an emblem for chastity suggesting purity, innocence and peace. Among Bengal virgins in previous centuries, the pearl was an amulet of purity.
In Renaissance Europe, pearls symbolised tears reflected by the oyster’s irritability (pain), considered unlucky for those in love and was rarely used in engagement rings.
By the 16th century in Europe, pearl was deemed exclusive to royalty – both Queen Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici were usually draped not only in multiple strands of pearls but had them in abundance sewn onto their rich robes, whatever the occasion.
Pearl ornaments have been found in ancient burial grounds in America and Sanskrit legend had it that pearls were formed from dew drops. Oyster rising to the surface of the water to imbibe in this sustenance transformed them into pearls.
The chemical structure of pearls is rather prosaic. Composed entirely of calcium carbonate particles bound together by organic materials, pearls are formed in their parent oysters when an irritating particle enters the mollusc. The creature responds by covering it with an iridescent nacre that builds up into a pearl.
Completely oyster-made pearls are called natural. Oriental pearls refer to those found in saltwater oysters mainly in the Persian Gulf, though sources are much depleted after centuries of farming. New sources were found in the tropical waters of Tahiti, Burma, Sri Lanka, the north coast of Australia and the Pacific shores of Venezuela, Panama, Mexico and Southern California.
Fresh water pearls are generally of riverine origin and most abundant in the Missisippi River and rivers in Scotland and China. Cultured pearls are the result of Man’s deliberate design to irritate oysters for commercial gain.
In the past decades, the cultured pearl industry in Japan has become a huge enterprise. Japanese carpenter Tatsubei Mise discovered the techniques that produced cultured pearls before 1904 but his patent application was refused. Then, zoologist Tokichi Nishikawa applied for a similar patent in the same year but this was not granted until 1916, two years after his death. It was his father-in-law, Kokichi Mikimoto who developed the technique commercially and the rest, as they say, is history.
Because of over-fishing and international unrest in the major producing and consuming regions of the world, the market for natural pearls is all but gone except at the highest levels of demand – such as collectors. Besides Japan, which produces the bulk of the world’s supply, Australia, Burma and Taiwan have extensive oyster beds.
Primarily pink and white, pearls of other colours are rare. Variety comes in the different shapes – round, button, oval, pear, egg and other odd shapes.
Natural blister pearls remain attached to the shell of the host oyster and have to be cut out along with part of the nacre creating a variety of shapes. Seed pearls are very small (two millimetres or less) and are usually massed together or strung in multiple rows. Generally, freshwater pearls have more colour than saltwater pearls. Colours can range from yellow, green, blue, violet, purple to gray. Dark pearls are termed black.
Care of Pearls
Because pearls are organic, they are affected by the environment. Heat can cause them to turn brown, split, crack and burn. Dry air, acids and harmful gases are anathema to pearls, causing them to crack and eventually corrode.
Worn regularly, natural body oils lubricate the pearls helping to retain their lustre. They should not be stored for too long else they lose their lustre.
Perhaps the mystical properties credited to pearls derive, in part, from this susceptibility to environmental conditions.
The incredible and immense Miracle of the Sea is a teardrop-shaped gem of 1191 grains (there are four grains to one carat and 20 grains in one gram) formerly among the crown jewels of the Chinese Imperial Court but now owned by the Imperial Pearl Syndicate. The Museum of Zozima in Moscow has a round Oriental pearl of some 111 grains, called La Pellegrina. Rumour had it that both Elizabeth Taylor and Imelda Marcos tried to obtain this rare jewel.
The fascination for pearls remains generally within the realm of well-to-do ladies of middle-age and middle-to-upper-class mien. Queen Elizabeth II is rarely seen without her signature multiple row of pearls – in informal pictures or state banquets.