Pearls – From Princes to Paupers

selection of pearls for blog

In her book, Buried Treasure – Travels Through The Jewel Box (Hoddon & Stoughton 2006), Victoria Finlay has Julius Caesar standing on the shores of France in 55BC, eyeing out the shores of Britain, ready to invade.

According to his biographer, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillis, Caesar had scant intelligence of what awaited him, save that the islanders were a ferocious bunch who liked to fight naked, covered in blue paint. But Tranquillis notes that uppermost in Caesar’s mind was the richness of pearls to be found in the rivers of the British islands, and considered the gamble worthy.

A very interesting book about gemstones and their history.

Although Caesar failed to conquer Britain in 55BC, or the year thereafter, according to Finlay he had by this time drawn up a strict law in Rome that only aristocrats may wear pearls. Pearls, it seems, were his commodity to chat up woman, and wield power and influence. According to Finlay, two thousand years ago very “few people could afford to own even one pearl, and a string was a sign of unimaginable wealth.”

Some time after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra famously drank one of her own pearls “dissolved” in vinegar to outdo her new lover Marc Anthony, so winning the wager between the two as to who could throw the most extravagant party. Finlay quotes the scholar John Healey that pearls were so valuable at the time that a servant may have been employed temporarily as pearl-diver to recover the swallowed pearl “in the natural course of events.” In more modern times Finlay cites the occasion in 1916 when the American industrialist Morton Plant and French jeweller Pierre Cartier traded an “enormous beaux-arts mansion on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for a 128-pearl necklace, and the deal sent pearl prices soaring.” More recently in 1969 the actor Richard Burton bought a famous antique pearl dating back 500 years from the Spanish royal court, called La Peregrina (the pilgrim), for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor at the bargain price of $37 000.

Yet today pearls are affordable and accessible, even to the middle classes. Enter Kokichi Mikimoto, born in 1858 to humble and poor peasant stock in Toba Bay, Japan. As a 10-year-old Mikimoto was to step into the family business while his father was ailing, helping his mother prepare and sell noodles on the local market. Mikimoto grew into an enterprising teenager and had soon supplemented the noodles he sold from his father’s wheelbarrow with fresh vegetables. In 1875, after a rather profitable year he undertook his first adventure to Tokyo, making the eleven-day journey, that would change his life, on foot.

At the port of Yokahama Mikimoto was astounded by the prices that pearls fetched, the very pearls that were abundant in his hometown bay of Toba. What further astonished him was that pearls were not only used as jewels, but most were crushed and put into medicine. “Throughout Asia and Europe, pearls were traditionally believed to ease a range of conditions, including eye diseases, fever, insomnia, ‘female complaints’, dysentery, whooping cough, measles, loss of virility and bed-wetting.” In contemporary medicine the nacre from pearls are used in bone implants, face creams and calcium supplements.

Mikimoto returned to his native Toba and within ten years became one of the provinces biggest traders in pearls. But what Mikimoto would become famous for was not selling natural pearls from the oysters in Toba Bay: as the sustainability of the pearl industry started wearing thin, Mikimoto is not only credited with inventing “a way of farming pearls but, more importantly, persuaded the world market to accept them.”

Mikimoto’s rise to fame and fortune is stuff movies are made of, and too much to mention in this blog. He grew up in a time in Japan when he saw the need for democratisation, and bringing these once unaffordable jewels to be adorned by any woman was the part this eccentric ‘Pearl King’ played. His methods caused an upheaval in the European gem markets when he took his pearls to London in 1919, as pearl dealers had thought their stock to be worth houses in the Hamptons, and the best experts and scientists couldn’t tell the difference between his pearls (at a fraction of the price) and natural pearls, unless they were cut open to reveal what lies at the center. Apart from that, they were made of the same matter, through the same process.

A seeded Tahitian pearl in its original mussel from Jay’s collection.

Cultured pearls are made by relaxing the mollusk in a warm bath. Freshwater pearls come from mussels, while seawater pearls occur in oysters. When the shell opens, a small cut is made into the animal’s sexual organ into which a graft and small bead is placed, which the mollusk will then gradually cover in nacre, the same material its shell is made of. The only difference in natural pearls is that it is usually a small parasite that intrudes a deformed mollusk shell hoping to live off the flesh inside. The mollusk becomes aware of this irritant, and in self-defense starts to cover the parasite with nacre.

The result in both processes is a beautiful sphere that shimmers in the light and warms against the skin, and has captivated royalty and nobility through the ages. Pearls like to be worn. In fact they need to be worn. Left in a cold dark place pearls will turn dry and yellow. The oils in human skin keep them warm and beautiful, and they become luminescent. Both in India and England servants were often during the day to be seen wearing more beautiful pearls than their mistresses, as they were only ‘warming’ the pearls to be worn later in the evening by the ladies of the household. In Carol Ann Duffy’s 1987 poem, Warming Her Pearls, a maid wears her mistresses pearls during the day, only to reluctantly having to place them at night “round her cool, white throat”.

While only coming in at about 2.5 to 4 on Moh’s Hardness Scale, pearls are tough little things. Finlay relays many stories of how people have through the years experimented with crushing or cutting pearls, often to comic effect. She herself, in emulation of Cleopatra, took a natural river pearl and experimentally dropped it in white wine vinegar. Expecting a “plink-fizz moment like a headache pill hitting water”, she noted no difference after two hours. The following day “something had started to happen”, but it was only after day thirty-two that she found the pearl split in half floating on the surface of the vinegar.

At the same time she quotes famous American jeweller George Kunz who in 1908 gave a list of occasions how you should not treat pearls: “If they are worn in the bath, if they are thrown on a dressing table, dropped on the floor, or otherwise ill-treated, if they are worn on dusty automobile rides, in bicycle riding or during other gymnastic or violent exercise, it is inevitable that their sides will rub together and wear one another away.”

Jay’s mother Beulah was extremely fond of her pearls, and I still have a picture in my mind of a purple turtle-neck sweater she wore adorned with elegant pearls. After retiring as a pediatrician she became beguiled by her daughters world of gems, so close to her own heart. Beulah would spend hours stringing pearl necklaces that she would sell at close to cost price in the retirement village where she spent her last years, like Mikimoto wishing her fellow villagers to enjoy pearls at a reasonable price. When she passed away in 2018 her production was in full swing, and we are now offering her designs at her bargain prices, so that her pearls can be worn, and enjoyed. Below are one or two pictures with links in the caption to the pearl page. Jay also has her own collection of natural and cultured pearls, so if there is anything bespoke you may want, get in touch and we’ll see if we can help.

Until then,
Please stay safe,
Love JD and Jay

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