Ever been told pearls are for old ladies?
Yup, me too.
I bet no one would have dared say that to Elizabeth I who prized the gem and wore enormous examples, notably a pair of earrings that can still be seen on the Imperial State Crown today.
But they are certainly old, possibly the oldest known precious stone, with evidence of pearl trading going back to at least 1000BC.
Pearls are far greater and more important than the old lady in twinset image of recent decades.
Prized as a symbol of purity, innocence and a natural phenomenon they have been highly prized for thousands of years and by some of the greatest figures the world has ever known. Associated with the Roman goddess Venus (or Greek Aphrodite who herself was born from the sea in an oyster shell) they have long been a symbol of love and purity.
(Elizabeth I, The Maharaja of Baroda & Sir Walter Raleigh displaying their pearls and power)
Created by a freak of nature, when a small grain of sand, shell or parasite gets into the oysters shell, and irritates it to such a degree that it attacks it with layers of a crystalline substance called nacre until it builds up to the most beautiful iridescent perfect stone: a pearl. Nothing is done to it, it isn't cut or treated or dyed. It just... is.
If you look at the size of some of the natural pearl earrings worn by women and men across the centuries in portraits, you can see they were clearly a symbol of high status and power. In fact in Ancient Rome, the Emperor Julius Caesar passed a law limiting the wearing of pearls to the ruling classes only, just in case the wearing of this precious miracle of nature made people too big for their boots.
Mostly found in the Persian Gulf they were critical to Arab trade but in the 16th century as the Americas opened up, more oyster beds were discovered in the seas around Central and South America launching a major boom known as the Pearl Age. Pearls were retrieved by free divers who risked their lives in dangerous waters to bring them to the surface.
You might be familiar with the faux pearls that were all the rage in the mid 20th century and surprised, therefore, to learn that pearls were already being faked in the 17th century. Jaquin of Paris patented a method that coated blown glass hollow balls with varnish mixed with iridescent ground fish scales. The hollow balls were then filled with wax to strengthen them. This method made Paris the main producer of fake pearls for over 200 years. People could just not get enough of pearls.
But like every craze, and human rapacity on the natural world, supplies started to dwindle by the end of the 19th century.
Even the graduated pearl necklace came about as a result of scarcity, when it became harder and harder to create a string of closely matched natural pearls, graduating the sizes was easier and less expensive.
Then we meet a man called Kokichi Mikimoto who firmly believed that all women should be able to affordthese remarkable stones; that the quality of a pearl has the power to lift a woman’s complexion just from its glow and make her face brighter and happier.
By 1896 he had won the patent to produce cultured pearls: a process by which the irritant (usually a bead) is deliberately introduced to the oyster and then they are given time to grow the pearls which are then harvested. Beads are implanted on a matrix, which is sometimes visible when you hold the pearl to the light.
By the 1920s cultured pearls were a global phenomenon which gave us the image of the flapper girl smothered in rows and rows of decadent, opulent pearls.
With the advent of the Golden Age of Hollywood and the unspeakably glamorous movies stars, pearls became the sought after prize for women across the world who wanted to look as effortlessly perfect as Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy could in just a single strand, or a perfect pair of earrings.
(Coco Chanel, Grace Kelly & Hedy Lamarr making their pearls even more desirable)
Faux pearls became the way forward in the mid 20th century for day wear, after Coco Chanel popularised the pearl as something to be worn all the time. The brand Coro and Corocraft launched multiple strands of coloured faux pearls, one to match every outfit you could think of. Now high quality designer faux pearl necklaces are prized in their own right. Coco, after all, was rarely wrong.
There are currently four main types of pearls:
· Akoya : The classic cultured pearl from the waters of Japan, traditionally white lustred and round though other subtle shades are found
· Freshwater : grown without a bead therefore usually unevenly shaped, often in pastel colours. Though more natural, they are more affordable as freshwater oysters can grow many pearls at a time
· Tahitian : Only grown in French Polynesia, these are exotic, dark coloured and mysterious, and often found in unusual shapes and sizes
· South Sea Pearls : Especially large pearls grown around Indonesia and the Philippines and usually ranging between white and gold, they can be as large as 18mm across. Perfectly round ones are rare so often they are misshapen baroque styles but no less treasured.
Top Tip: Take care of your pearls by storing them with a small dish or cup of water to stop them drying out and dulling.
Nowadays the true natural pearl is highly valuable. In fact the graduated pearl necklace came about because it was almost impossible to find pearls that looked identical. A necklace of perfectly matched natural pearls could set you back tens to hundreds of thousands.
If only all irritations could be dealt with so well.