To celebrate the month of June, let’s have a closer look at this month’s birthstone: Pearl! Here is a 101 to the enchanting world of pearls with a deeper look into their formation, properties, various types and some of the most unforgettable pearl jewelry to date.
Pearl is a hard, glistening object that forms when an irritating microscopic object such as sand is trapped within mantle folds of a living shelled mollusk or another animal, such as fossil conulariids. As a defence mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid called nacre, layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed. Just like the shell of a mollusk, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form, which has deposited in concentric layers. Natural pearls, formed without human intervention, are very rare. Many hundreds of pearl oysters or mussels must be gathered, opened, and thus killed, to find even one natural pearl; for many centuries, this was the only way pearls were obtained, and hence the extraordinary fetched prices for pearls in the past. Natural pearls historically where found across the world with main oyster bed being found in Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Mannar and Red Sea. In present day, natural pearling is confined mostly to seas off Bahrain, and Australia. Australia has one of the world’s last remaining fleets of pearl diving ships. Australian pearl divers dive for south sea pearl oysters to be used in the cultured south sea pearl industry. Cultured pearls are assisted by man in their creation but still the process of pearl formation is completely natural. The pearls grow naturally inside the organism following the biological processes of the oyster. In 1893, kichi Mikimoto successfully created the world’s first cultured pearls.
5 VIRTUES OF PEARL:
- Lustre: the lustre of pearl depends upon the reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light from the translucent layers. The thicker the nacre, the more lustrous the pearl is as well is more durable over time.
- Surface: there are two factors affecting the surface of a pearl, blemishes and grains. Blemishes cause slight imperfections and these naturally bestowed ‘beauty marks’ characterise each pearl as an individual creation. Grain refers to the composition of the pearl’s surface and its structure. The tighter the structure of the pearl, the less evident is its grain. The grain will appear as slight ripples on the pearl’s surface. The quality of surface is influenced by number and size of imperfections and their degree of visibility.
- Shape: pearls come in different shapes, the most coveted shape is the perfectly round pearl, other shapes of a pearl are; near round, drop, button, baroque and oval. In addition to these shapes there are two more shapes: Circle and Keshi; Circle features one or more grooved rings around the pearl and keshi is a cultured pearl without a solid nucleus. Keshi is a Japanese word that literally means “poppy seed” and is used to describe small pearls. These rare pearls are highly sought-after due to their beautiful, intense lustre and unique freeform shapes.
- Color: pearls are found in different shades which can vary depending on the origin, in general pearls are white, pink, silver, cream, brown, green, blue, black, yellow, orange, red, gold, purple or iridescent.
- Size: The size of the pearl is directly related to how long the pearl grew or developed within the oyster/mollusk.
– 4-6 years will produce a pearl on average between 7.5mm to 14mm.
– 7-10 years will produce a pearl on average between 14-18mm.
– 20-30 years will produce quite large and unusual pearls of extraordinary beauty and luminosity.
- South Sea Pearls: cultured in Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Burma. Can be found in different colors depending on the origin.
– White South Sea pearls are cultured along the northwest coast of Australia. Silver-lipped South Sea oysters generally produce pearls in the white, silver, aqua and blue family of overtones. The gold-lipped variety produces the cream, champagne, and deeper golden variety. Since the natural colors of South Sea pearls are so rich and beautiful, after harvesting they are merely washed and buffed to remove any residue and bring out their natural glow.
– Gold South Sea pearls are now primarily grown in the Philippines and Indonesia, with Australia making up only a small percentage. Color of pearls produced by the gold-lipped South Sea oyster range from a creamy white to a deep gold. The varying hues in between are often referred to as yellow and champagne. Each of the colors may be beautiful in their own right, but the most valuable is gold.
- Akoya Pearls: Specialty of Japan’s pearl farms. Pearls from Akoya oysters are admired for their elegance and lustre. Akoya pearls are currently farmed in Japan, China and to a lesser extent, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia. The vast majority of the world’s akoya pearls are produced in Japan, which is the undisputed akoya pearl producing center of the world. While the akoya pearl is considered to be (overall) more rare and valuable than the freshwater pearl, it is only the third most valuable commercially produced pearl, falling behind South Sea and Tahitians. Akoya pearls, unless color-treated, have neutral colors and overtones. Most pearls are white to grey, with pink, green, or silver overtones. Occasionally, akoya pearls are blue with silver and pink overtones, but these colors are extremely rare. Akoya pearls are never naturally black – black akoya pearls have undergone either Cobalt-60 radiation treatment or treatment with an organic dye.
- Tahitian Pearls: Black-lipped oysters are farmed in French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, the Micronesian Islands, and even to some extent, Japan, Thailand, and the Philippines, but only those grown in French Polynesia may be called Tahitian pearls. Tahitian pearls are the only pearls that have a full color spectrum. Black-lipped oysters have a rainbow-like mantle which exhibits all natural colors. These colors are expressed in Tahitian pearls exhibit a broad spectrum of colors, ranging from black, green, blue, gray to red and yellow. The rarest color is peacock with an intense iridescent tone and highest lustre.
- Freshwater Pearls: Freshwater pearls are produced by Hyriopsis cumingi (triangle shell) and Hyriopsis schlegeli (Biwa shell) commercially in China, and other bivalve mussels that live in lakes, riverbeds and creek bottoms in Japan (Biwa pearls and Lake Kasumigaura pearls), as well the United States (Mississippi River Basin). Although most freshwater pearl information lists several areas of the world as home to pearl-producing mussels, the global freshwater market is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese pearl farms, which account for nearly all freshwater pearls sold today. Best known for their whimsical shapes and wide variety of sizes and colors, the character of a freshwater pearl is found in its distinctive surface texture and the warmth of its luster. The nacre of a high-quality freshwater pearl does not typically have the glossy, metallic finish found in akoya pearls, and they are evaluated on separate quality scales.
FAMOUS PEARL JEWELRY
QUEEN MARIE ANTOINETTE’S PEARLS ($40 million)
Queen Marie Antoinette’s 18th century pearl and diamond pendant sold for $40 million (CHF 36 millon) during Sotheby’s Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family in November 2018. Set with an oval diamond supporting a diamond bow motif and a slightly baroque drop shaped natural pearl measuring approximately 15.90 x 18.35 x 25.85mm, hook and hinged back fitting, the pearl and diamond bow motif were suspended from Marie Antoinette’s three strand pearl necklace; the single stone oval diamond surmount formed the clasp of that same necklace.
LA PELEGRINA ($11 million)
La Peregrina was found off the coast of Panama in 1576, is a perfectly pear-shaped pearl weighing 202.24 grains. First bought by Philip II of Spain in 1582 and soon became one of the country’s most important crown jewels. It passed through the hands of eight kings of Spain over a 200-year period before falling into the hands of Joseph-Napoléon Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, who became King of Naples and Sicily. In 1969, Richard Burton paid $37,000 for La Peregrina at auction in New York, before presenting it to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, on her 37th birthday. It was remounted on a necklace designed by Elizabeth Taylor and Al Durante of Cartier. La Peregrina came up for auction in December 2011 at Christie’s New York as part of the collection of Elizabeth Taylor. It sold for $11,842,500, more than five times its low estimate, making it at the time the most expensive natural pearl jewel ever sold at auction.
THE 7-STRAND NATURAL PEARL NECKLACE ($9 million)
The strands composed of seventy-five, seventy-six, eighty-one, eighty-seven, ninety-one, one hundred, and one hundred and four graduated round to button-shaped natural pearls, measuring approximately 17.05 to 5.1 mm, to the old-mine diamond-set bar clasp, shortest row 53.5 cm. Sold at Christie’s Geneva Magnificent Jewels 2013 for $9,081,000.
THE BARODA PEARLS ($7.1 million)
This extraordinary two strand natural pearl necklace is strung with sixty-eight of the largest pearls from the famed seven-strand natural pearl necklace that formed the cornerstone of the Royal Treasury of the Maharaja of Baroda. The Baroda Pearls realized $7.1 million during Christie’s New York Magnificent Jewels 2007.
THE COWDRAY PEARLS ($5.3 million)
Formerly from the collection of Viscountess Cowdray, Lady Pearson (1860 – 1932), the Cowdray Pearl necklace comprising 42 pearls had been re-strung to 38 pearls. Two pearls from this strand after 1937 were mounted into a pair of earrings by Cartier, which remained with the Cowdray family. These and two other pearls originating from another antique jewel was recently re-strung back to its original number of 42 pearls – ‘to make it a superb layout of historic pearls’ (SSEF, 2013). The Cowdray Pearls first appeared at auction at Sotheby’s London in 1937, with a catalogue note stating that ‘there is probably no finer collection of such pearls in existence’. In 2013 they appeared at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2015 Magnificent Jewels and Jadeit and sold for $5.3 million.
Queen Marie Antoinette Pearls courtesy of Sotheby’s
La Peregrina courtesy of Christie’s
Seven Strands Pearl Necklace courtesy of Christie’s
Baroda Pearls courtesy of Christie’s
The Cowdray Pearls courtesy of Sotheby’s