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Pearls: The Precious Water Jewel
Pearls are one of three jewels known as organic. (The other two being amber and opal). Meaning they are derived from living creatures or once living matter. Pearls are the only jewel to actually absorb the DNA of the wearer. You can wear diamonds, topaz, peridots, sapphires, or any other jewel, and your DNA will simply be "smeared" on the piece. But with pearls something almost magical happens. A little part of you merges with the pearl. And to me, this is a truly amazing thing, and just one of the many reasons to enjoy pearls.
Pearls are made of calcium carbonate, deposited layer upon layer in tiny crystalline form. Pearls are nacreous and iridescent. They form in many wonderful shapes and beautiful colors. (and can be dyed every color of the rainbow). The luster of a pearl depends on the refraction, diffraction, and reflection of light from the layers of the pearl. Thinner and more layers means more fabulous luster.
The wonder of pearls can be enjoyed by almost anyone, with almost any budget! Because pearls, besides found in the wild, are also cultured in either their sea water or fresh water varities, and in sizes as small as seed pearls, all the way up to huge!
This was not always the case. In history, pearls were so rare and costly few could afford this wonderful natural jewel, and so they were owned almost exclusively by the rich or the nobility. The desire for pearls reached a fevered peak at the height of the Roman Empire. The historian Suetonius tells us that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one pearl earring!
Legend has it that to convince Rome that Egypt had a heritage and wealth above conquest, Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony she could give the most expensive dinner in history. As he reclined, she sat with an empty plate and a goblet of drink. She crushed a large pearl, put it into her goblet, and drank it down. Antony admitted she had won the bet!
Historically pearls were harvested from the principal oyster beds in the Persian Gulf near the coasts of India and Ceylon (a.k.a. Sri Lanka), and in the Red Sea. Chinese pearls were mainly freshwater, while Japanese pearls were found coastally in salt water. Nearly all the pearls in historical commerce came from these few places.
When the "New World" was reached, English settlers, and French explorers in North America met Native Americans wearing pearls! Freshwater pearls were found in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee rivers. Spanish explorers and settlers in Central America and the Caribbean forced slaves to dive for pearls. So while North America set a new high standard in fantastic freshwater pearls, white saltwater pearls from the coasts of Panama and Venezuela were found to be just as lovely as pearls from Bahrain. Black saltwater pearls from the Bay of California (in Mexico) were an alternative to Tahitian blacks.
These pearl supplies continued into the 1800s, until greed, overfishing, and lust for this wonderful jewel in Central American ocean waters, and in North American rivers and streams depleted the beds. Population, industrialization, and pollution also took its toll in the United States.
Then, toward the end of the last century, the one thing to forever change the world of pearls slowly unfolded in the then isolated island nation of Japan.
From NOVA online : "Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker, had a dream and a hard-working wife, Ume. Together they set about to do what no one else had done—entice oysters to produce round pearls on demand. Mikimoto did not know that government biologist Tokichi Nishikawa and carpenter Tatsuhei Mise had each independently discovered the secret of pearl culturing—inserting a piece of oyster epithelial membrane (the lip of mantle tissue) with a nucleus of shell or metal into an oyster's body or mantle causes the tissue to form a pearl sack. That sack then secretes nacre to coat the nucleus, thus creating a pearl. Mise received a 1907 patent for his grafting needle. When Nishikawa applied for a patent for nucleating, he realized that he and Mise had discovered the same thing. In a compromise, the pair signed an agreement uniting their common discovery as the Mise-Nishikawa method, which remains the heart of pearl culturing. Mikimoto had received an 1896 patent for producing hemispherical pearls, or mabes, and a 1908 patent for culturing in mantle tissue. But he could not use the Mise-Nishikawa method without invalidating his own patents. So he altered the patent application to cover a technique to make round pearls in mantle tissue, which was granted in 1916. With this technicality, Mikimoto began an unprecedented expansion, buying rights to the Mise-Niskikawa method and eclipsing those originators of cultured pearls, leaving their names only for history books."
Given as a gift, or something for yourself, there is no other jewel like pearls!