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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

(continued from page 1)

Natural pearls have been worn and esteemed for thousands of years. The oldest known pearl fisheries, in operation for 2,000 years, are located off the northern coast of Sri Lanka. The Persian Gulf was a traditional source of the finest natural pearls, especially around the emirate of Bahrain. Several factors, including the Great Depression and the discovery of oil in the early 1930s, led to a reduction in the number of pearls that came from the Persian Gulf.

The antiquity of pearls may be appreciated by strolling through any historic portrait gallery. Rare are the great women of history who aren't shown wearing a long strand of natural pearls. Throughout the centuries, gifts of pearls accompanied great expeditions from one royal court to another.

Pearls have always been highly esteemed as a symbol of purity, making them the jewel of choice by brides throughout the centuries. But the desire for pearls was seen as burdensome to many European societies. Sumptuary laws, meant to decrease the ostentatious display of wealth that was putting a burden on the municipal and state coffers, often focused on pearls, as exemplified by this decree from Venice: "Although in the year 1599 this council decided with great wisdom that married women should be permitted to wear pearls for only fifteen years after their first marriage, nevertheless it is very evident that the desired end has not been attained, and the extravagance has continued." A new law was necessary: subsequently, married women were prohibited from wearing "pearls of any kind except for ten years after the day of their first marriage."

Though the wearer may be highborn, the creation of a pearl is a far lower-level operation. It is a spontaneous reaction by the mollusk to an irritant such as a grain of sand. When it is unable to dislodge the irritant, the supersensitive oyster does the next best thing: it produces nacre, which covers the irritant with a smooth coating. The mollusk doesn't seem to have a mechanism for turning off the tap, so it keeps depositing nacre and building up the pearl. The ultimate size of the pearl depends on the type of mollusk, the water in which it lives and the length of time it is left to its own devices. Cultivators of pearls tap exactly the same instinct in coaxing oysters to create pearls.

The familiar round Akoya pearls experienced their biggest boost in popularity and affordability when American GIs returned with them from Japan after the Second World War. Cultivating them in the calm bays around the Japanese islands, farmers nurture baby Akoya oysters until they are three years old. Then the oysters are taken from the sea and a smooth, round bead is inserted. This bead is made of the purest white clamshell available, from the freshwater mussels found in the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers. The bead has the same chemical composition as the nacre secreted by the mollusk. Although the cultured pearl is a completely organic product, most of the pearl is composed of shell, not nacre. The bead that is inserted is only about two millimeters smaller than the desired pearl. This gives the oyster quite a leg up on reaching the ultimate goal--as if a runner were placed on third with a power hitter following. Along with the bead, the cultivator places a tiny square of tissue taken from the mantle, or lining, of the oyster; it is this mantle that actually gives the process its jump start.

The operation is fraught with peril. Oysters, understandably, don't take kindly to being forced open for the insertion of the nucleus. The cultivators have resorted to a form of mollusk massage therapy in an effort to relax them enough to allow the bead to be inserted.Still, the percentage that die is quite high.

After the insertion, the oysters are placed in baskets that are suspended from rafts in the sea. They float within these baskets, feeding on the minuscule nutrients that float by. The farmers who tend their delicate crop are at the mercy of all the forces of nature. If the waters grow too cold or there is a violent storm, the oysters may die; if there is pollution, the pearls will be discolored. The longer the oysters are left in the sea, the larger the pearls they will produce. But this same extended period increases the odds that the oysters, and their pearls, will be attacked by one of the many adverse elements. This dilemma is at the heart of the cost of producing a large, well-shaped, unblemished pearl of fine color.

Periodically, the oysters are brought to the surface and cleaned of the growths that collect on their shells. Those oysters that have died are removed from the baskets. By the time the oysters reach the end of the culturing cycle, only about one-third will have survived. The ideal period for the oysters to nurture a growing pearl is three years. Most are brought out of the water before that time, often in less than two years. Hastily made pearls, those generally produced in less than a year, are easy to spot by their "blinking," a quality of uneven coating that reveals the shell bead core.

Whether the nucleus is small or large, the time the oyster is left in the water is the same. The thickness of nacre that adheres to the nucleus grows at the same rate. Japanese cultured pearls are rarely larger than 10 millimeters, as their size is limited by the size of the mollusk. It is a result of the control the farmers in Japan and the South Pacific have over the sales of their product that a price differential is maintained for larger pearls, since the only real difference in their production is the size of the clamshell nucleus. A small but highly visible percentage of pearls is sold through industry auctions, but most of them are sold directly to a handful of pearl dealers. It is a pearl version of the way De Beers maintains control over diamond prices. The difference is that pearl production is limited and highly subject to nature's whims. A stormy winter that brings a chill to the waters of Japan can nearly wipe out not only one year's crop but two or three.

If you have a yen for Japanese pearls, this is the year to buy. Come 1998 and beyond, fine-quality Japanese pearls will be harder to find than an insurance salesperson at a skydiving competition. Although partial wipeouts of oysters seem to be the norm in this industry, in 1996 the pearl farmers suffered their greatest recorded losses ever. The mortality rate of the oysters last year moved up from the usual 40 percent to 55 to 60 percent. Such a loss affects the crops of the next few years, since it takes three years for an oyster to reach a size suitable for implanting a nucleus. The much-vaunted Chinese production, spoken of in some quarters of the trade as the replacement crop, will never be able to fill the gap left by the Japanese fall-off. According to Devin Macnow, the executive director for the New York City-based Cultured Pearl Information Center, "Even the highest-quality Chinese pearl is no better than medium-quality Japanese." This has nothing to do with politics or work ethics; it is a simple matter of differences in water temperature. "The water temperature around the Chinese coast, in the South China Sea, is seven to 10 degrees warmer than it is around Japan," says Macnow. "What gives Japanese pearls their luster is that the pearl is growing in cooler waters and the layers of nacre are tighter. Japanese bays are very, very deep, with a good flow of nutrients reaching the oysters. The Chinese coast is very shallow and the tidal movements are harmful to the oysters."


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