Dating back as long ago as 5 BC, when the Romans and Egyptians recognized their uniqueness and natural beauty, the pearl has been crowned the Queen of Gems. Discovered by fishermen scouring the shores to feed their families, the oysters’ secret was soon found to be even more precious than the mollusk’s delicate flesh. Hidden within the oyster was the luminous sphere the fishermen held up to the heavens to marvel at the extraordinary luster of their new treasure. And so began their worship of the new Queen.
Cherished, prized, and highly sought, the pearl has become a quintessential adornment, a statement of fashion, commitment, and even more. Before they were cultivated, the ocean’s pearls were found at the astonishingly low rate of merely one pearl for 10,000 oysters. This long, impatient period between each discovery only fed the desire for the elusive pearl, and all but assured this minute natural wonder as a rare item of status – along with those fortunate enough to possess them.
Queen of Gems
Another Queen renowned through history, Cleopatra, owned the two largest pearls of her time. Placing one of them in a vessel containing wine so strong that it melted the pearl, and then performing an act demanding Marc Anthony ’s attention, she lifted the vessel, swallowing the wine – along with the dissolved pearl. She remarked that she had made her expensive toast to honor Anthony (with the added benefit of the wine serving them as an aphrodisiac due to the pearl’s association with the Goddess of Love, Venus).
The pearl even garnered the attention of Caesar, who also marveled at their radiance, often holding them and gazing at the wonder of their shapes and sizes. In fact, Caesar’s obsession was said to be the motivation for his legion’s first invasion of Britain in 55 BC in search of Scottish pearls.
Pearls in Art
Vermeer, with his love for the way pearls brought life to his paintings, included them in 21 of his masterpieces. His style composed the paintings with magical soft focus, while placing an accent on his attention to his portrayal of the pearl. Such works include Woman with a Pearl Necklace, featuring pearl earrings and a pearl necklace (1664), Girl Writing a Letter, (c 1662-1667, also known as a Woman Writing a Letter, featuring a pearl necklace and earrings), Woman with a Lute, (1662-1663, featuring pearl earrings and necklace, produced when Vermeer was in his 30s), and Study of a Young Woman, (c 1665-1667, featuring a pearl earring and painted around the same period as Girl with a Pearl Earring).
Our appreciation of the pearl even finds its influence in what can arguably be considered the first introduction of social media, further shaping our appreciation via its painted depiction by artists like Johannes Vermeer, who in 1665 painted his venerated Girl with a Pearl Earring, heralded for the breathtaking depiction its single magnificent pearl earring. In 2006, the Dutch nominated it as the most beautiful painting in the Netherlands.
The cultured pearl has its origin in Asia, where the first blister pearl (a shell-attached pearl often flat on one side) found its humble beginning with the manual insertion (a process termed seeding) of a small hornlike substance into the oyster.
After this nucleus was implanted into the oyster, the tiny foreign invader activated the oyster’s natural defense against the foreign body by encasing it. This would be the pearl’s genesis. Over time it has been found that any shelled mollusk can use this process to produce a pearl, including the abalone, marine snail, clam, mussel, and last by not least, the oyster.
Genesis of the Cultured Pearl
The 5 S’s of Pearl Grading
Similar to the way we evaluate a diamond by appraising its famous 4 C’s (Carat weight, Color, Clarity, and Cut), a pearl is valued by its own set of standards. These 5 aspects of the pearl’s pedigree are:
One noted method some use to check whether a pearl is a ‘real thing’ is the popular oral test for which the sensation referred to as grit is the result when a true pearl is rubbed against a natural tooth. If the pearl yields a smooth sensation rather than the telltale sandy impression as it slides along the surface of a tooth, the pearl is likely not authentic, in other words, a fake.
Shape plays a significant role in the determination of a pearl’s price. The more perfectly round, the greater the price it can demand. Historically, the rounder more expensive pearl was likened to the celestial perfection of a full moon; however, times have changed, and while perfectly round pearls are still highly desired for their impressive value, other uniquely-shaped pearls are often considered equally as valuable – and in some cases even more so.
Such is the case for semi-baroque pearls, more irregular and more imperfect, examples include egg-shaped, button shape, pear shape and circularly shaped pearls, such as the coin pearl. Tahitian pearls are commonly circular with a groove encircling the diameter of the pearl. These pearls are striking for their natural black beauty and luster.
The considerable range in sizes extends from 2 mm to 25 mm (the latter of which is quite rare). Pearls measuring 8-9 mm come with a substantially increased price, in sharp contrast to those in 2 mm range. As with any commodity, when large numbers of similarly-sized pearls are harvested, the cost of the pearl decreases, based on the over-supply for correspondingly limited demand. Alternatively, by the same law of supply and demand, in times of high demand for an inadequate inventory of the corresponding pearl, the cost increases.
In the case of saltwater pearls created by oysters, there can only be one pearl formed by its host at one time. Amazingly, the creation a necklace with matching pearls in size, shape, and luster can take many years to harvest the necessary components to craft a single necklace – it follows the long process of creating such rare jewelry is reflected in the necklace’s cost.
Of course, the glory of a pearl’s shine takes into account its luminosity. The more lustrous, the more valuable the pearl. This is the result of the pearl’s creation, which begins as an act of the oyster’s natural defense mechanism toward a parasite (sometimes a simple grain of sand entering the shell). In the act of protecting itself from the unwanted intruder, the oyster secretes a substance known as Mother of Pearl. This secretion will continue to form layers over the oyster’s perceived enemy, layer over layer. After a time, the layers become the lustrous end product we know as the pearl. The longer the pearl remains in its shell, the more lustrous it becomes.
And the more golden the pearl, the more we can trace their origin to the Southern Seas. This is a result of the water’s temperature and its influence over the pearl. With the warm waters of the Philippines at the equator, the oyster is more golden, in turn giving the golden color to the pearl within it.
Equally important, the fewer the pearl’s blemishes, generally speaking, the more valuable; however, pearls such as the Tahitian or Baroque, which bare the unique signature of mother nature’s ideal imperfections are also valued. Regardless of shape, size, and degree of luster, natural pearls are designed to be as unique as each of us, with their visual allure attracting its ultimate owner. Examples of these differences are found in the South Sea and the Tahitian pearl.
Dark and exotic, the Tahitian pearl is highly prized for the beauty of its black, brown, grey, and green personality. These colors are produced by the magnificent Pinctada Margaritifera: the black-lipped oyster native to the Pacific ocean. The most desirable Tahitian pearl color is the peacock color, with its kaleidoscope of coloration ranging from green and pink to purple. Most striking of all, the Tahitian pearl is the only natural black pearl.
South Sea pearls are the Rolls Royce of natural pearls, produced by Asian countries such as Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, as well as along Australian’s north coast (about 100 miles south of Broome). The offspring of the magnificent Pinctada Maxima oysters, these pearls are unrivaled in their natural beauty. These are created by the largest oysters, which can achieve pearl sizes up to 305 mm (that’s 12 inches in diameter – a true Amazon of the oyster world). Not surprisingly, the Pinctada Maxima is also the largest producing oyster in the world. The color of the pearl, derived by the Mother of Pearl’s color, corresponds to the color found on the interior lip of the closed oyster’s shell.
South Seas Pearls
For this reason, it can take many years to form a South Sea Pearl necklace. Each time the oyster is harvested, it’s a guess as to what color pearl the oyster will have produced.
These affordable pearls are loved for the fashion-forward appearance they contribute to their necklaces. Known for their baroque shapes and colors, they are produced in whites, creams, violets, pinks, ivory, and peaches. Also available in metallics and classic on-trend colors produced by dying the pearl, they are extremely versatile.
The Conch pearl is produced by its namesake the Conch, and not by an oyster. It is a pink/peach and approximately 3 times more valuable than the South Sea pearl.
Sea of Cortez Pearls
These beautiful pearls are produced by the Pteria Sterna oyster which is found in the Pacific coast of America, known for its tropical and subtropical shallow waters. This oyster produces pearls in colors ranging from green, golden, pink, gray and hues of purple.
Pearl Colors and their Countries
|Australia||White, Silver white|
|Indonesia||Off white, Cream, Golden|
|Philippines||Golden, Cream, Off white|
|Malaysia||White, SIlver, Cream|
|Thailand||White, SIlver, Cream|
|Tahiti||Black, Brown, Peacock|
Size of the South Sea Pearl
Known as the cream of the crop, the Pinctada Maxima oyster can live up to 40 years and creates the largest pearls in the world. These pearls are so highly sought that one Australian South Sea pearl necklace fetched more than 1.5 million dollars at auction.
Using the 5 S’s of as the standard to judge a pearl aids in the careful task of matching pearl jewelry and ensuring that a necklace is made of the same size, shape, luster, and color of pearls. At Her Majesty’s Jewels, we take pride in our selection and crafting of our necklaces and bracelets and offer jewelry of excellent value and enduring beauty.