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Pearls: Gems of the Ocean

Before They Can Adorn Your Sweetheart's Neck, Pearls Must Be Gently Cultivated
| By Ettagale Blauer | From 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.

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."

But neither China nor Japan competes in the sector of the South Seas cultured pearls. Here, in the warm waters of the South Pacific around Australia, Indonesia and Tahiti, mollusks grow to a huge size. Known as the Pinctada maxima family, these oysters produce pearls as large as 22 millimeters--three-quarters of an inch in diameter. The average size of South Seas pearls ranges from 12 to 16 millimeters in diameter. The technique used to culture South Seas pearls is similar to that used with the Akoya pearl. The cultivators in the South Seas have improved their production by keeping the oysters out of harm's way. If there is a drastic change in water temperature, they can raise the oysters quickly, with a minimum of disruption, to a more agreeable level of the ocean. They also get more mileage from each oyster; the South Seas oyster is tolerant of a second implant after the first pearl is harvested, and in some cases it can even tolerate a third and fourth implant. Various members of this family produce exquisitely colored pearls ranging from white to silvery to creamy pink. John Block, head of the precious objects division at Sotheby's, says, "The biggest prices have been for gem-quality pearls with a pink overtone."

The majority of Australian South Seas pearls come in a silvery tone. In Tahiti, the black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera oyster produces a range of deep tones, including purple and green-black. Black pearls are really anything but--they're peacock color, with greens and blues and reds all in one strand. They have an iridescence that makes them particularly colorful. Some are the color of eggplant, hence the term "aubergine." All of these colors are natural, even though the pearls themselves are cultivated. This makes for some cumbersome descriptions, but they're worth reading carefully. Recently some disreputable pearl producers have offered white South Seas pearls that have been dyed using a new technique that is very difficult to discern. The industry's most prestigious laboratory, the Gemological Institute of America, in New York, is refining a method for detecting this treatment. If pearls have been dyed, they should be worth a fraction of the price of naturally colored ones.

In spite of their enormous size, South Seas pearls still convey a feeling of refined beauty, quite different from diamond or colored gemstone jewelry of equal price. It's difficult to imagine almost anyone but Elizabeth Taylor wearing a half-million dollar diamond necklace at lunchtime, but a pearl necklace of that value would look quite graceful on any woman. It's the lack of flash that appeals to women from all tiers of society. It's the reason that pearls of all sizes and colors were avidly snatched up at Sotheby's Magnificent Jewelry auction last October. A single strand of 63 natural pearls, so beautifully matched it took 10 years to assemble them, was sold for $464,500, while a strand of 25 South Seas cultured pearls, measuring 15 to 18 millimeters, brought $618,500.

The production of South Seas pearls began with the arrival of Japanese companies, which brought technicians to the region following the Second World War. They sought to expand their businesses by cultivating larger pearls than could be grown in the bays of Japan. The Australian pearl farms dot the country's north coast, where the silver-lipped oyster can flourish. Around Indonesia, the yellow-lipped mollusk makes the creamy-colored South Seas pearls. This is the color that was once produced in the legendary Burmese pearls. The color of the lip is crucial to the color of the pearl produced, for it is the bit of mantle taken from this area that lends the nacre its color. Unfortunately for the world, and certainly for the Burmese, the takeover there by a socialist government in 1951 was the beginning of the end for its pearl industry.

An oddity of cultured pearl production, both for the Akoyaandthe South Seas, is the creation of "keshi." These smaller pearls form from bits of mantle that find their way into the oyster. Because they are byproducts of the culturing process, the producers do not consider them to be natural pearls. South Seas keshi may be as large as 10 to 12 millimeters.

While the warmer waters of the South Pacific do make life easier for the oysters, their lives are not without peril. To hear Salvador Assael, known as the king of Tahitian black pearls, tell it, there's always a natural disaster waiting just around the corner. "Right now Indonesia is producing very little, because about four or five years ago an earthquake and tidal waves destroyed 80 percent of the pearl farms."

Still, it's clearly worth all the risk. In terms of value, South Seas pearls are the Rolls-Royces of the industry. Measuring by kan (3.75 kilograms), the standard pearl weight, approximately 22,000 kan of Akoya pearls were produced in 1996, for a total value of about $880 million. About 1,200 kan of Tahitian black pearls were produced, with an estimated value of between $150 million and $200 million (figures supplied by the Cultured Pearl Information Center), while 400,000 Australian South Seas pearls brought $300 million.

Both the Akoya and the South Seas pearls are cultivated in the ocean, in mollusks that are at home in salt water. But rivers and lakes also host pearl-bearing mollusks. These, naturally, are known as freshwater pearls. Freshwater mollusks are more delicate than their ocean-dwelling cousins. They will not tolerate a hard nucleus. Instead, a piece of mantle tissue is inserted to initiate the creation of nacre. This yields an amorphous pearl.

But the times they are a changin' here, too. The Chinese have begun to produce reasonably round pearls in freshwater mollusks. If they are able to produce a consistent crop, they can give the Akoya pearl producers something else to worry about. For now, the majority of freshwater pearl production retains that soft free-form shape. The irregular shape of freshwater pearls, however, can be a virtue when the pearls are well matched and the surface texture is lustrous and pit-free. When the demand for freshwater pearls was at its height in the 1980s, production in China was pushed to the limits. In a wild period of hasty production, low-end, poorly formed pearls known as 'Rice Crispies' were produced.

The best of the freshwater production in the 1980s came from Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Although the lake is very deep and is fed by mountain streams, it was vastly overused and became so polluted, it no longer produced beautiful pearls. And yet, Lake Biwa is returning to life. The surprise is that the cultivators have taken a new direction. Instead of producing the smooth-skinned irregularly shaped pearls for which the lake was known, they have figured out how to produce nearly round 10- to 14-millimeter pearls that would cost a fraction of the price of South Seas pearls. The work is still in the experimental stages, but according to Devin Macnow, the quality is there. "I've seen some samples," he says, "but production is still five to 10 years in the future. They might find once they put a million oysters in the water, the production may be very limited anyway." Still, it's a tantalizing thought. The Japanese may be well advised to keep their focus on the pearls, one of their most traditional products, and stay away from those real estate and movie production deals.

Ettagale Blauer saw the pearl cultivation process firsthand in Japan. She writes frequently about precious jewelry and objects for Cigar Aficionado.