Precious Pearls

There is nothing quite as classic, timeless and chic as a simple string of pearls or a pair of pearl drop earrings. They enhance any outfit and suit any occasion, from a professional business presentation to a sophisticated dinner party. They’re also a great traditional wedding gift or anniversary present, especially for a 1st, 12th or 30th wedding anniversary. But where do pearls come from, and why have we been so in awe of them for so long?

Ancient beauty

Pearls have been captivating men and women for thousands of years. The Ancient Greeks believed that they were the tears of their gods. The Chinese once thought that they fell from the sky during dragon fights, or that pearls were moonlight trapped in dewdrops. Julius Ceasar was even said to have invaded Britain to find them (though he didn’t go quite far enough north to Britain’s pearl beds on the River Tay).

The oldest pearl jewellery dates back to around 350BC, in what was then known as Persia. Known as the Susa pearls, the piece comprises a three string choker carrying 238 pearls. It was found in 1901 and has been on display in the Louvre ever since.

So just what is it about pearls that has cast such a spell for so long? Is it the unique lustre of the surface? Is it the rarity of these natural gems? Or is it the sense of adventure of finding a pearl in an oyster against all the odds? Perhaps it is the combination of all of these things that makes pearls the must-have adornment for royalty, the rich and the stars of Hollywood.

True Grit

Unlike gemstones and precious metal that must be mined from the ground, pearls can be found in both saltwater and freshwater lakes, seas and oceans all around the world. They are formed when grit gets into the shell of a mollusc. The creature then excretes a substance called nacre to protect itself from this irritant, which hardens in layers to form the pearl. The common misconception is that pearls grow from grains of sand, but they can be the result of a huge variety of debris, from tiny sea creatures to particles of shell. In cultured pearls, the irritant is usually a piece of shell from another oyster. This is introduced artificially into the recipient mollusc by hand. Cultured pearl shells can grow up to 20 pearls at a time, significantly reducing the rarity, and therefore the cost, of cultured pearl jewellery.

Rare gems

Most pearls on the market these days are cultured or farmed, but historically, finding pearls took dedication, patience and more than a little luck. In theory, any oyster can hold a pearl, but the odds are really stacked against you at a massive 12,000 to 1. To put that in perspective, you are nine times more likely to get the same number twice on the run when spinning the wheel at roulette, than you are to find a pearl in your shell.

That said, if you do find the right shell, it can be well worth the effort. The world’s largest pearl sold for a cool $62million in 2006. Known as the Pearl of Allah, it weighs in at over 6kg and is a quarter of a metre across. The largest so-called perfect pearl, La Peregrina, not only has a price tag of $11million but also has a fascinating history of owners, including Napoleon, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Taylor.

South Sea pearls

The rarer and more exotic a pearl, the higher its value. White and gold South Sea pearls are known for their exceptional lustre and their remarkable size, measuring up to 20mm or more. Black South Sea pearls, known as Tahitian Pearls, are also highly prized, although their name belies the huge range of mesmerising dark green and purple shades and tones that are available. Their unique colours and oily shine come from the volcanic chemicals in the Polynesian waters.

However, finding your pearls in the first place is only half the battle. Pearls have a huge natural variation in size and shape, lustre and colour and many carry natural flaws in their surface nacre. This means that you need to compare around 10,000 pearls just to find fifty that match. So if it wasn’t for cultured pearls, you would have to open a mind-boggling 120million molluscs just to make one perfect necklace. No wonder they have been held in such high esteem for so long.

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  1. I used to work in a jewellers for a long time and I remember all the questions people would ask about pearls and people were always so shocked when we said you couldn't wear them in water as they'd soak it up! x

  2. This is so interesting! Pearls are not quite my style but their history is fascinating. I've always found it amazing something people treasure so much is found in lakes/the ocean!

    Musings & More

  3. That took some dedication to find pearls in years gone by, the odds were certainly stacked against them

  4. I do quite like pearls, although less as a string of them in a necklace and more as part of a ring, or a pendant necklace.