Pearl:The Only Living Jewel

We do not usually think of Pearl in the way of gemstones. It doesn't form miles under the Earth's crust,but miles under the surface of the ocean resting on the ocean floor. It is organic,like raw gemstones,but the formation is unique and very different from the way may jewels have been formed through the eras of time.

Long known as the "Queen of Gems," pearls possess a history and allure far beyond what today's wearer may recognize. Throughout much of recorded history, a natural pearl necklace comprised of matched spheres was a treasure of almost incomparable value, in fact the most expensive jewelry in the world. Now we see pearls almost as accessories, relatively inexpensive decorations to accompany more costly gemstones.However,some people are unaware of how Pearls actual form. For centuries,natural pearls were worn throughout the world. Only natural pearls were able to be harvested for those who could afford them. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very rich. A jewelry item that today's working women might take for granted, a 16-inch strand of perhaps 50 pearls, often costs between $500 and $5,000. Pliny, the world's first gemologist, writes in his famous Natural History that the two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000 ounces of fine silver ($9,375,000 with silver at $5/ounce). At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother's pearl earrings. Many ancient civilizations,like the Romans and Egyptians,valued pearls over any gemstones.

No one will ever know who were the earliest people to collect and wear pearls. George Frederick Kunz, one of America's first gemologist (but not THE first), in his 1908 masterpiece, The Book of the Pearl, states his belief that an ancient fish-eating tribe, perhaps along the coast of India, initially appreciated the shape and lustre of saltwater pearls, which they discovered while opening oysters for food. These days,pearls that are natural hardly occur anymore. A lot of the pearls worn today are either sythetic or 'cultivated' or 'farmed'. The latter practice of producting pearls is the most well know and most controversial approach to achieving pearls

During the long history of pearls, the principal oyster beds lay in the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and in the Red Sea. Chinese pearls came mainly from freshwater rivers and ponds, whereas Japanese pearls were found near the coast in salt water. Nearly all the pearls in commerce originated from those few sources. Over the next millennium only three substantive events altered what appeared to be a very stable pattern. Considering the minimal state of pearling in the United States today, it is impressive that two of the three developments occurred in the New World. As Europe raced to capitalize on what Columbus had stumbled upon, the major powers of the day concentrated on spheres of influence. Spain focused its efforts in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, the Spanish forced slaves to dive for pearls. The English colonizers along North America's Atlantic coast and French explorers to the north and west, all found native Americans wearing pearls, and they discovered freshwater pearls in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins. So many gems were exported to Europe that the New World quickly gained the appellation "Land of Pearls."

While North America set a new standard for large freshwater pearls, white saltwater pearls from the coasts of Panama and Venezuela competed with pearls from Bahrain, and black saltwater pearls from the Bay of California (in what is now Mexico) provided an alternative to Tahitian blacks. More pearls arrived in Spain than the country's aristocratic market could absorb. As with the emeralds it was mining in Colombia, Spain found ready buyers for its new pearls across Europe and in India.Those pearl supplies continued into the 1800s, until overfishing in Central American waters and in North American streams depleted the beds. Pollution also took its toll as the United States industrialized. Then, toward the end of the last century, the single event that forever reshaped the pearl trade slowly unfolded in the isolated island nation of Japan.Those pearl supplies continued into the 1800s, until overfishing in Central American waters and in North American streams depleted the beds. Pollution also took its toll as the United States industrialized. Then, toward the end of the last century, the single event that forever reshaped the pearl trade slowly unfolded in the isolated island nation of Japan.

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. Largely by trial and error over a number of years, Mikimoto did contribute one crucial discovery. Whereas Nishikawa nucleated with silver and gold beads, Mikimoto experimented with everything from glass to lead to clay to wood. He found he had the highest success rates when he inserted round nuclei cut from U.S. mussel shells. Although some countries continue to test other nuclei, U.S. mussel shells have been the basis for virtually all cultured saltwater pearls for 90 years. Even though third with his patents and his secrets, Mikimoto revolutionized pearling. Ever the flamboyant showman and promoter, he badgered jewelers and governments to accept his cultured products as pearls. His workers created massive pearl structures, which he displayed at every major international exposition. By mastering the techniques, Mikimoto, then hundreds of other Japanese firms, made pearls available to virtually everyone in the world.

These days,many people still buy cultured pearls,but there are many who find the practice inhumane and cruel to the oysters themselves. There is a market for sythetic pearls and many find them more ethical than forcing the oysters to take irritants in which the nacre secretes around in order to protect the oyster,thus forming the pearl.Nacre is an organic-inorganic composite material produced by some molluscs as an inner shell layer; it also makes up the outer coating of pearls. It is strong, resilient, and iridescent. Forcing the nacre to form around a irritiant can cause more problems to the molluscs than some may reconize. Some oysters are left in this uncomfortable and forced state for sometimes a year in order to achieve larger pearls. Like many sea animals,oysters can feel stress and fear and this can lead them to a ultimate death if forced into situations such as cultivating. Some 'pearl farms' are simply a pond on a farmers land but in larger operations,they are forced to share tight space with other oysters in cultivation lakes.Being forced to stay shut while the pearl forms is cruel to the oyster as well moving it around in different temperature water can cause stress and death to the molluscs as well. If you really want a string of pearls or a pear ring or set of earrings,make sure you know what you are going into before purchasing the jewelry. Synthetic pearls may not have the allure of real pearls,but there are tons of varieties to choose from! Second hand pearls,or vintage pearls are also okay because the have a better chance of being authentic and less inhumane. We can always appreciate the history or that strand around your Grandmother's next from afar.

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