Pearls have been part of human culture since ancient times. For most of their history pearls were a symbol of extreme wealth, so much so that Cleopatra effectively used them to deter Roman aggression. By drinking wine made of crushed pearls, Cleopatra impressed Marc Anthony, who perceived such wealth would make Egypt unconquerable; a Roman general, Vitellius, financed a military campaign by selling a pearl earring. Pearls were referenced in the ancient Chinese book the Shu King as well as in the Koran, while Egypt’s use of mother of pearl was described as far back as 4200 B.C. At one time, just two pearls were of worth as much as 1,875,000 ounces of fine silver.
The Birth of a Pearl
Just as the lotus flower grows from the muck, nature has designed the slimy interior of the oyster to be the birthplace of the pearl. Oysters are classified as bivalves, meaning that their shell consists of two halves that are connected by ligament, similar to the way the front and back cover of a book are bound. The oyster can open both halves of its shell just as you would open a book. This is how the oyster feeds, drawing in water and filtering out the nutrients. Within the oyster’s body lies the mantle, an organ that secretes nacre, a form of calcium carbonate. Oysters and other mollusks use nacre to line the interior of their shells.
But unlike most other mollusks, oysters also use nacre as a form of defense. When a parasite or foreign body is detected within its shell, the oyster secretes nacre, which envelops the intruder. The nacre hardens and forms a protective barrier between the invading body and the oyster’s body, forming what we call a pearl. Mother of pearl comes from the nacre that coats the interior surface of the shell. Because of its iridescent appearance, mother of pearl was once used in making shirt buttons, but its use can still be found in the manufacturing of musical instruments and high end watches.
After the 1800’s the United States experienced a shortage of pearls due to over harvesting and pollution brought about by industrialization, setting the stage for a revolutionary moment in the history of the pearl: the age of the cultured pearl. By intentionally inserting foreign bodies into oysters, it was now possible to raise pearls as though they were a farm crop. The success of this new enterprise led to a dramatic decline in the price of pearls.
Artificial pearls are entirely manmade and can be distinguished from natural or cultured pearls by a number of means. Other than having the pearl appraised by a reputable jeweler, you can hold the pearl to a bright light. Artificial pearls are perfectly rounded, while natural pearls are irregularly shaped. Variations in tone and color are an indication of a natural pearl, while uniform color and tone are characteristic of artificial pearls. Similarly, natural pearls should have ridges that can be seen through a magnifying glass, while artificial pearls have perfectly smooth surfaces. Also, inspect the size of the drill holes. Real pearls have smaller drill holes, so as to retain the value of the pearl, while artificial pearls will sometimes flake off around the drill hole area.
This article was written by Nate Ygona, an aspiring designer who hopes to help you understand fashion better. He writes this on behalf of Saint Christine, your number one choice when looking for elegant necklaces. Check out their website today and see how they can help you!