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Pearls: Gems of the Ocean

Before They Can Adorn Your Sweetheart's Neck, Pearls Must Be Gently Cultivated
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

It was 1917, and Pierre Cartier was feeling cramped in his floor- through digs at 712 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. At the same time, Mrs. Morton F. Plant, wife of a New York banker, had her eye on a natural pearl necklace that Monsieur Cartier had assembled, one pearl at a time, over a number of years. The necklace, comprising two strands of pearls, one with 55 pearls, the other with 73, was valued at $1 million.

Coincidentally, that was the value placed by Mr. Plant on a piece of property he owned, the elegant, six-story mansion at the corner of 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Monsieur Cartier proposed an even trade--the mansion for the pearl necklace. "The transaction was accepted without hesitation by the shrewd banker," according to Hans Nadelhofer, who confirmed this too-good-to-be-true legend once and for all in his book, Cartier, Jewelers Extraordinary.

At that time, the desire for a strand of beautiful round pearls could be met only by natural pearls. Culturing pearls, the process of nudging oysters to create pearls, was a few years in the future. Yet the idea of inserting an irritant into an oyster to start the production of nacre--a smooth-coated substance that builds up to form the pearl--had been around since at least the thirteenth century, when the Chinese managed to cultivate half-round pearls against the shell of the mollusk.

In the 1890s, Kokichi Mikimoto was one of several Japanese who were trying to produce round pearls. Two of them, Tatsuhei Mise and Tokichi Nishikawa, were successful in creating round cultured pearls, but could not produce them in quantity. Nishikawa built on Mise's work and ultimately won a patent in Japan. Neither was destined to enter the history books. That honor goes to Mikimoto, Nishikawa's father-in-law. He tinkered with the established invention until he found a way to bring the culturing process into commercial production in the 1920s. His methods for collecting and rearing young oysters as well as the method of inserting a nucleus, or irritant, formed the basis of the cultured pearls we know today.

Within a few years of Mikimoto's introduction of cultured pearls in quantity, the price of natural pearls plummeted. By 1957, when Mrs. Plant's pearls were sold at auction, they brought just $151,000. The mansion, by contrast, had more than held its value, since no one has figured out a way to create more real estate, especially in one of New York's most desirable business neighborhoods.

While the process of culturing pearls allows many more women to own them, that doesn't mean that pearls are cranked out like so many glass beads. The process is very much a matter of farming and, like all other farmed products, it's subject to the vagaries of weather. It is still up to nature to do most of the work. A necklace of enormous, cultured South Seas pearls, well matched, with beautiful color, luster and smooth skin, can today fetch $1 million or more at auction. Ironically, natural pearls rarely command such a high price, such are the peculiarities of the marketplace. Cultured pearls are generally available at far more modest prices, of course. A strand of 6- to 6.5-millimeter Japanese Akoya pearls can cost $1,500 or less, while a strand of freshwater pearls of good quality can be had for a few hundred dollars or less.

As with any gem, price is determined by size, quality and rarity. The quality of pearls, however, is much easier to assess than other gems. The standard of roundness is easily judged by simply looking at the pearl. A strand of pearls should roll easily on a smooth surface. In the trade, a nearly perfectly round pearl is sometimes called an "eight roller," meaning it rolls in all directions. Now take a close look at the surface: is it relatively smooth and free of pits? The fewer pits or other flaws, the better the quality and the higher the price. Next, consider the color of the strand. Are the pearls well blended? Pearls are made by nature, not in a dye vat. There will always be slight variations.

With pearls, what you see is truly what you get. The best pearls combine four qualities. The first is luster, the display of surface reflection and depth of reflection that yields a three-dimensional look. Next, look for a surface free of tiny pits or other blemishes that break the smooth skin of the pearl. Now look at the shape of the pearl: the rounder it is, the higher its value. And finally, look at the color. It should be even all around each pearl, and then well blended from pearl to pearl. These four qualities, plus size, add up to value and price. The more tightly packed the layers of nacre, the more the pearl will display these qualities. Ideal culturing conditions and time are required to create pearls that allow you to look past the surface coating.

The graduated strand of pearls, a delicate necklace with one large center pearl and pearls of diminishing diameter flanking it on both sides, has become a rarity in the pearl world. Matching the luster and color throughout the strand in the gently diminishing diameters requires a great deal of time and sorting. A necklace of pearls uniformly sized at seven millimeters might cost $1,800, while a graduated strand with a seven-millimeter center diminishing to five millimeters would be about $2,500 to $3,000. Today, the strand of uniform size is both popular and more readily available, whether the pearls are a modest six millimeters in diameter or an eye-popping 18--nearly gumball size. Because pearls are a natural product, their size varies from pearl to pearl.

It's worth pausing to get the nomenclature straight before plunging into the ocean depths. In the world of jewelry advertising and fashion, terms are tossed around like so many shucked oysters. The word "natural" is reserved for a pearl made by a mollusk that gets irritated on its own. A cultured or cultivated pearl is one that is made by the mollusk after an irritant has been inserted by hand. Akoya pearls are cultivated in the Akoya oyster, and traditionally come from Japan. South Seas pearls are cultivated in the Pinctada maxima family of oysters, giant cousins of the Akoya oyster. Frolicking in the warm South Seas waters, these enormous oysters can support enormous pearls. Freshwater pearls, which are usually less round, are cultivated in rivers and streams, especially in China, where virtually every body of water larger than a bathtub is in use.

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