Pearls have been objects of desire right since the time of the ancient Indian and Egyptian civilisations. In the Hindu book of the Rigveda, Krishna apparently descended into the ocean and discovered the first pearl, which he gave to his daughter on her wedding day. To this day, to ensure a happy marriage and prevent widowhood, many Indian brides still wear pearl nose rings at their weddings.
Perhaps the most famous allusion to the legend of pearls concerned Cleopatra and Marc Antony, rulers of the ancient Egyptian and Roman empires. To convince Rome that Egypt possessed a great heritage and wealth, Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony she could give the most expensive dinner in history. The Roman reclined as the queen sat with an empty plate and a goblet of wine (or vinegar). She crushed one large pearl of a pair of earrings, dissolved it in the liquid, then drank it down. Astonished, Antony refused his dinner — the matching pearl — and admitted she had won.
Scientifically speaking, a pearl is an object produced within the soft tissue of a living shelled mollusc. Just like the shell of a clam, a pearl is made up of calcium carbonate in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes of pearls exist.
Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very rich. It is said that the Roman General Vitellius financed an entire military campaign with just one of his mother’s pearl earrings. And more recently in 1917, Cartier bought it’s New York headquarters by trading in a double strand necklace made from natural pearls (reputedly worth $1 million then) that took years to collect. Incidentally, the Cartier headquarters on fashionable 5th Avenue is still around to this day.
It was from the 1950s onwards with a worldwide trade in cultured and artificial pearls, that they became a part of popular culture and every lady could dream of owning her own pearl necklace. Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold around the globe. Imitation pearls are also widely sold in inexpensive jewelry, but the quality of their shine is usually poor, and they can be easily distinguished from genuine pearls.
Pearls have long been considered a symbol of love, protection, wisdom, purity, wealth and have been associated with female energies. When used in jewellery they are mainly classified according to their method of cultivation, their shape and their colour.
Says jewellery designer Farah Khan Ali, “I love pearls because they remind me of Audrey Hepburn and have a feel of sophistication to them. I am especially fond of the ones sourced from the South Sea and Basra. South Sea pearls which are cultured from places like Japan and Australia are large, beautiful and have great lustre. These are also mainly the types of pearls that I employ in my jewellery.”
Farah says she uses the different colours that pearls come in – cream, pink, golden black etc – to her advantage by setting them with different precious metals and combining them with other precious stones like emeralds, rubies and sapphires. “Also irregular shaped pearls such as the baroque pearls are great for spiritual motifs such as the Ganpati,” she adds. While once upon a time they were considered an older woman’s prerogative as jewellery, nowadays, says Farah, she sees more and more women in their 20s and 30s sporting pearls.
Says designer Varuna D Jani, who adores Keshi pearls that have a pink overtone, “Keshi pearls are great for brooches and animal motifs because of their irregular shapes.” Varuna also feels that natural pearls can be a great investment opportunity for connoisseurs.
Types of pearls
Natural: Made without human interference.
Cultured: Made when a foreign substance is intentionally inserted into a living oyster. This method was first used in 1893.
Baroque: Pearls that have irregular shapes
Biwa: An irregular shaped pearl which forms in the freshwater of Lake Biwa, Japan.
Blister: Pearls which grow attached to the inside of the shell.
Black Pearls: Grey to black pearls.
Freshwater: Pearls which form in fresh water mollusks and resemble puffed rice.
Mabe Pearls: Cultivated blister pearls.
Seed Pearls: Tiny pearls used in Victorian jewellery and sewn on clothing.
Pearl is the official birthstone for June as adopted by the American National Association of Jewellers in 1912. It is also the birthstone for the sun signs of Gemini and Cancer. Fresh water pearls are given on the 1st wedding anniversary. Pearls are also given on the 3rd, 12th and 30th anniversaries.
(with inputs from the worldwide web)