Ugg boots, North Face fleeces, and pearl stud earrings--That was the uniform. My cowboy boots, Patagonia fleece, and earrings that dangled and chimed stood out on my college campus. My quiet rebellion stemmed from resentment of the pearl earrings I saw all around me... Pearl studs on the elliptical. Pearl studs at Sunday morning brunch in the dining hall. Pearl studs/sweatpants ensembles sitting in class...
How could these girls not want variety in their earrings? Weight and sound? Jingle and shine? I wore a different pair of earrings every day for four months straight my senior year! With continuous exposure to small white balls on the earlobes of my peers, I started to equate the pearl with homogeneousness and a serious lack of creativity. I hated pearls.
Flash forward a decade and I have a confession: I am a pearl girl.
My college self was entirely ignorant about the unique and spectacular nature of the pearl. I didn’t understand the pearl’s ability to scatter light, reflect a face, or tell its own story of creation through its color and the texture of its surface. Now, I am a Certified Pearl Expert by the Gemological Institute of America. Working in Global Education and Sales Training at Tiffany & Co., I spent months creating curriculum about Pearls that has been rolled out globally to Tiffany sales teams. I am not only a pearl girl. I am a professional pearl girl.
Welcome to June, the month with the best birthstone: The Pearl! This month, I have put together weekly pearl posts to share some of my knowledge and passion about these incredible baubles. I hope to entice you to look at those radiant beads in a new lustrous light and appreciate some of the nuance of these incredible organic gemstones!
Let’s start with some background…
How do pearls form?
Unlike other colored gemstones that form deep within the earth as a result of pressure, temperature, and the miraculous presence of a specific cocktail of chemicals, pearls are an organic gemstone. Organic gemstones are made either by a plant or animal. Pearls form inside mollusks, which is the general term referring to single or bivalve (double-shelled) marine animals that can be found in either salt or fresh water. There are thousands of varieties of mollusks in the world, but only 20 varieties can actually produce a pearl. The other varieties are still delicious, just gemologically less alluring…
A pearl forms when an irritant gets inside the shell of the mollusk and the mollusk reacts by coating the invader with layer upon layer of beauty. Mollusks secrete a mucous-like material called nacre (pronounced NAY-kur) that hardens into iridescent “bricks” that are bound together by a second substance that acts like glue, called conchiolin. Basically, a mollusk shoots a spider web of shiny material around the intruder in order to neutralize the foreign matter and protect itself!
Pearls will either be Natural or Cultured.
Natural pearls are formed in a completely organic process on the ocean floor. Cultured pearls, on the other hand, are cultivated and grown by man on farms of mollusks. Let's talk about the background of Natural vs. Cultured pearls... because it's cool.
There are two ways that a natural pearl can form:
Mollusks are filter feeders, meaning they open their shells to filter water for food (plankton). The water is then flushed out, but, occasionally, unwanted particles remain inside the shell, initiating the formation of a pearl.
Because mollusks live in the sand, parasitic worms sometimes drill their way through the shell of the mollusk and lodge themselves within the body of the creature. The mollusk senses this intruder and begins the process of coating it in nacre.
Due to over-harvesting and the ever-increasing pollution of the world’s oceans, natural pearls virtually ceased to exist around 1900. Harvesting natural pearls was very difficult and dangerous. Bareback diving 65+ feet to the bottom of the ocean often yielded few (if any) results. It was not uncommon for divers to get the bends when returning to the surface or drown in the process of digging for mollusks. In fact, it was so dangerous, for much of history slaves were often employed to do the dirty work... Eventually, diving equipment was developed. Drivers used heavy metal helmets, weighted shoes that held the divers to the ocean floor, and fabric tubes that tethered divers to the surface for an occasional breath. If you can imagine, these “advancements” did little to eliminate the challenges of harvesting natural pearls.
As a result of their rarity and the difficulty in obtaining them, natural pearls were very expensive and rare, belonging only to the noble and wealthy. Today, some natural pearls can still be found, but due to pollution and over harvesting, they will often be very small and, always, very costly.
Virtually all of the pearls within the pearl industry today are therefore “cultured” and not “natural”.
Unlike natural pearls, which are formed spontaneously in nature, the growth of cultured pearls is assisted by man. The process of culturing pearls started with one man, known as the father of the pearl industry: Kokichi Mikimoto (1858-1954).
Mikimoto was the son of a Japanese noodle maker who grew up to be a vegetable vendor-turned-pearl-farmer. Though Mikimoto is credited with the invention of cultured pearls, he was not the first to TRY to coax a mollusk into creating a pearl (There are some very ancient pearls from China that were cultured to be the shape of Buddha). He was, however, the first to hold a patent for successfully culturing round pearls and he did so with such abundance that pearls became available to those outside of royalty and the wealthy for the first time in history.
So what did Mikimoto do? Mikimoto developed a process to provoke the oyster to produce a pearl by inserting an irritant into the animal without killing the mollusk or irritating the mollusk so much that it ejected the object. He experimented using glass, lead, clay, and wood, eventually finding success by placing a piece of shell into the mollusk along with tissue from another mollusk. The insertion of this tissue was key. The mollusk did not eject the bead because the tissue confused the oyster into thinking the object inserted was a part of itself since the tissue that had its own DNA.
In 1921, round cultured pearls appeared on the market for the first time. Mikimoto’s techniques produced large harvests of pearls far faster than nature ever could. Pearls were at last accessible and therefore affordable. Soon ropes of cultured pearls adorned the most fashionable ladies of the roaring ‘20s and pearls became abundant and synonymous with a classic, timeless aesthetic... one perfect for working out on an elliptical on a college campus... ;-)
Check back next week for more information on the pearl culturing process. Here’s a teaser of a pearl farm… Not a bad office view, right?