Introduction To Pearls
A Pearl strand, a South Sea Pendant, or Pearl Earrings. Akyoa Pearls, Golden Pearls or a deep rich Tahitian Pearl. These are perhaps the most elegant, sophisticated (yet simple) form of jewelry that can be worn and have an incredibly long and fascinating history.
A Pearl is a living gem, and each one is a natural marvel. A pearl is made up of nacre or mother-of-Pearl, a somewhat transparent substance comparable to the lining found on the interior of nacreous shells, which creates the brilliance and iridescence of a Pearl. A single Pearl is made up of thousands of incredibly thin layers of this nacre.
By definition, “natural” Pearls are any type of Pearl created by a “natural” process or by chance without human intervention. Natural Pearls do not have an implanted nucleus!
Natural Pearls result from chance, with an irritant such as a burrowing parasite, plant, or sand debris randomly entering the Pearl. Natural Pearls are seldom spherical or consistent in size because they lack a shell spherical as their nucleus.
Before the depletion of natural Pearl beds, about a century ago, all Pearls that were discovered were “natural Pearls”. Today natural Pearls are very rare and expensive. Because a natural Pearl would require a provenance to prove its origin, natural Pearls are often sold at auctions in New York, London and other international venues at investment prices.
Long known as the ‘Queen of Gems, ’ natural Pearls were once the “exclusive domain” of the rich and powerful, of royalty! From the time of Cleopatra’s famous Pearls through to Queen Elizabeth 1 of England, Pearls have been a symbol of incredible wealth and status.
Cultured Pearls are formed when humans intentionally introduce an irritant into the oyster. The first known examples of human ‘intervention’ date back centuries when ancient Chinese records describe the science of ‘culturing’ Pearls. However, one man, in particular, has made the process famous. Mr Mikemoto had a dream that “every woman on earth could afford a Pearl”.
Today all commercially available pearls are cultured, where a technician skilfully inserts foreign matter into a healthy, mature oyster or mussel to produce a cultured Pearl. To protect itself from this irritant, the oyster produces cells that secrete multiple layers of nacre that eventually coat the foreign matter to become the cultured Pearl. Traditionally, after one to three years beneath the sea, the Pearls are then harvested. The shape and size of the resulting Pearls depends, to a large degree, on the shape and size of their implanted irritant.
The white South Sea Pearls are cultivated in a type of mollusc called Pinctada Maxima. It is the biggest of all species and can grow up to 35cm. It generally produces Pearls from 9 to 18mm. The Pinctada Maxima includes the (gold-lipped or ‘yellow-lipped’ shell, found mainly in the Philippines and Indonesia. This variant predominantly produces Pearls of champagne and cream colours. The ‘white lipped’ and ‘silver-lipped’ shell is found mainly in the waters of Australia and the southern regions of Indonesia and mostly grows white Pearls with a silvery shade.
Most Pearls are aggregated at annual auctions. Pearl farmers from all over the South Sea regions combine their harvests to present at auction houses (in a process very similar to rough diamond sales). Here the best prices are achieved, but as the Pearls are combined into ‘lots’ or ‘parcels’ the tracking of the origin of the actual Pearl farm becomes very difficult.
Pearl farming is “mostly” run by “farmer fishermen”. The overwhelming majority of Pearl farms are in isolated pockets of pristine waters in the South Pacific to rivers, lakes and dams as from Malaysia to Mexico. There are also the ‘big brands’ that run the multimillion-dollar operations with flashy ships and planes, however Australian Pearl Divers prefers to aggregate pearls from humble farmers who are also family businesses who take immense pride in what they do and have done so for generations.
Most Pearls are aggregated at annual auctions. Pearl farmers from all over the South Sea regions combine their harvests to present at auction houses (in a process very similar to rough diamond sales). Here the best prices are achieved but, as the Pearls are combined into ‘lots’ or ‘parcels’ the tracking of the origin of the actual Pearl farm becomes very difficult.
THE COLLECTION OF “SPAT”
There are a myriad of mussel and oyster species with an infinite variety of shape, colour and variety; however, they all begin as “spat”. “Spat” are the microscopic living spawn of the oyster and mussel and would naturally float through the ocean or river until they found a resting place from which to grow. Spat is initially collected in the natural “wild” environment to begin the harvesting cycle.
Growing the Oysters in a controlled environment is one of the most challenging parts of the process. Freshwater mussels are far more forgiving than their sensitive cousins the “South Sea” Oyster. Tanks are filled with the microscopic spat which also contain thickly bunched nets. As the nets provide the perfect location to grow the spat collect and attach themselves to the netting strands.
Nets are then placed back into the original environment to grow, hung and suspended underwater in racks where they grow and mature until they are ready to receive a nucleus.
Some use boats to raise up the ropes, sometimes divers using tanks scour the seabeds. The famous Mikimoto pearl divers (all women) hold their breath to collect the matured Oysters.
INSERTING THE NUCLEUS
This is the process made famous by Mikemoto. At this point an “irritant” is inserted into the gonad (sex organ) of the host oyster or mussel. The nucleus for an Australian South Sea Pearl can be a piece of the “giganticus” Clam which is basically the mother of pearl shell which has been rounded into a bead or “seed”. The oyster then produces a protective sac that secretes nacre to cover the nucleus.
During the seeding process, a piece of “mantle tissue” is used. This is a fleshy part of the actual Pearl. A Pure Pearl oyster has multiple slivers of living mantle tissue inserted as irritants, which the mussel then covers with nacre to protect itself. At the end of this process the original tissue dissolves, leaving behind entirely ‘Pure Pearls’ – with no internal seed nucleus at all. This process often results in a harvest of up to 20+ Pure Pearls per shell within a 2-year timeframe.
The wide variety of shapes occurs naturally as the Pearl is hidden away developing. For example, a pear-shaped pearl is often the result of a circular bead (irritant/seed) that actually attached itself to the shell at some point in the growth process. The ‘perfect round’ pearls are those that can move freely within the gonad allowing them nacre layer growth with perfect proportion.
A “Circle” (with the layered lines around it) is where a pearl is hindered or affected by a blockage as it turns within the host. These blockages force the pearl layers to bend and accommodate (work around) the blockage (thus forming circles). Bean, Seed, Rice, Button, Biwa are all variations of these internal anomalies that affect the final shape.
Then the host is left to mature. This process takes anywhere from 6 months for a 5mm Pure Pearl or a Tahitian Pearl with only a very thin outer layer of nacre, up to 2 years for a large Australian South Sea Pearl. The Pinctada Maxima can live up to 7 years and each time it is harvested a large bead can be placed inside the host to kick off the nacreation process.
Harvesting is the most incredible experience. It is literally like opening a ‘treasure chest’ when you open a mature oyster. Despite all of the hard work you still do not ever know what you will get until the growth and maturation cycle is complete. It is a wonderful, incredible experience to open an oyster or mussel and witness the majesty of the treasures that have formed inside.