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Pearls are heirloom quality jewels. They beg to be passed on from one generation to the next. The Louvre in Paris is home to a 3000-year-old pearl necklace found in a bronze sarcophagus in Persia. The three strand neck piece has 216 intact pearls. Fortunately, there are useful techniques for preserving the integrity of your pearls that don’t include enclosing them in a bronze casket!
Pearls are soft, porous, organic gems that are vulnerable to acidic conditions and humidity. Over time, pearls that are worn directly against the skin will absorb the skin’s acid and the chemicals from any perfumes worn. They will begin to loose their luster and even their shape. Dry air and heat causes pearls to become brittle and brownish. They can even crack and break when subject to extreme lack of humidity. The softness of pearls makes them susceptible to scratching.
Wiping your pearls with a soft, dry or damp cloth after each time they are worn is an effective preservation technique. Storing them in a silk pouch rather than tossing them in the jewelry box with other items is another simple and effective idea for keeping pearls safe. It’s not a good practice to hang pearl necklaces on jewelry stands, as this stresses the thread that holds the pearls in place. Plastic bags emit chemicals that can destroy the surface of pearls and should not be used for storage. Many people tuck expensive jewelry into safety deposit boxes. This practice could be counterproductive for pearls. They may remain safe from theft, but the dryness of bank vaults could destroy them.
Despite your best efforts to care for your pearls, they are meant to be worn and will get dirty. You can clean them yourself at home, if you follow a few simple guidelines and have a few simple tools handy.
Make a lukewarm solution using gentle, fragrance-free soap flakes. Use no detergents, household cleaners ( bleach and ammonia will destroy pearls), abrasives (even baking soda), jewelry cleaners (unless specifically labeled safe for pearls), or tarnish removers.
Lay the pearls flat on a soft towel. Apply the soapy water with a soft, natural bristle nail brush which is reserved only for the cleaning of your pearls.
Turn necklaces or bracelets over and repeat the process.
Rinse the pearls in cool running tap water for at least five minutes so no soap residue is left on them.
Lay the wet jewelry on a soft, damp towel and do not move it until it is completely dry to avoid stretching the thread. When the towel is dry, the pearls will be ready to wear or store.
You can opt to have your pearls professionally clean. Just double check with your chosen jeweler to be sure that no ultra sonic or steam-cleaning procedures will be used. These techniques damage pearls. Pearl strands need to be restrung as much as annually if worn regularly as a signature piece of jewelry.
Even with the best of care, your heirloom pearls will yellow with age and may look more ivory than white when a young woman fifty years from now steps out wearing the pearls you passed on to her.
Many world cultures hold myths about the moon and the origins of pearls: pearls are formed when dewdrops filled with moonlight drop into the sea to be eaten by oysters, the moon bathes in the ocean and attracts oysters to fill with dewdrops, or pearls fall from the sky when dragons fight. One famous pearl is named “The Pearl of the Moon” and was found in the Arab Gulf in 1550. It was a revered treasure of the Chinese Empire, all 309.89 carats of it!
Of course, pearls aren’t dewdrops impregnated with moonlight, even though that is an apt description of their luminous appeal. They happen in a much less poetic manner. Pearls are formed within a living creature as a way of protecting it from invasive matter. Oysters are the mollusks we typically associate with pearl formation, but others produce pearls, too. Mussels and clams are bivalve mollusks that make pearls. Abalone is a univalve sea animal that creates an exquisite pearl, but rarely.
A bivalve is a sea creature whose shell has two halves or valves with a ligament that connects them and keeps them opened enough for the mollusk to feed. As a baby oyster grows, so must its shell. An organ within the oyster or mussel, the mantle, uses minerals from its meal to grow the shell. It does this by producing nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, the shimmery inner lining of the shell.
Nacre also comes into play when a foreign substance slips between the mantle and the shell and irritates it. Although, the story that a pearl can be produced by a grain of sand is an exaggeration. The offending matter needs to be larger than that to trigger the organism’s natural response, which is to encapsulate the irritant in a pearl sac and cover it with layer upon layer of nacre to relieve discomfort. Over time, a pearl is born. Nacre is a translucent substance; light shines through the surface of the pearl and creates the glow that is characteristic of these jewels from the sea.
The creation story of a cultured pearl is somewhat different from these naturally occurring pearls in that an irritant is purposefully inserted in the mantle of the host mollusk. The Japanese were experimenting with pearl culturing as early as the 13th century, but only semi round or blister pearls were formed out of their efforts. Spherical pearls were successfully cultured in the early 20th century using a delicate process perfected by a Japanese noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimoto.
Today the preferred process for culturing round pearls in saltwater oysters consists of inserting a round nucleus into the connective tissue of the oyster. Pearls from the Akoya oyster–Akoya pearls–are considered to be the classic round pearls, possessing renowned luster. The cultured pearl industry really took off with the successful production of pearls using freshwater mussels rather than saltwater oysters. The mussels are implanted with pieces of mantle tissue from other mussels and the nacre secretion process begins. They don’t require the addition of a nucleus to stimulate the pearl making process.
One of the original sites for freshwater pearl culturing was Lake Biwa in Japan. The first commercial pearl crops were harvested there in the 1930’s. The Biwa pearls had color and luster not seen in saltwater cultured pearls, and they were solid nacre.
Biwa Pearls - JCD "Sticks and Stones" earrings
China entered the cultured pearl scene in the 1960’s, as the Japanese industry waned due to extreme pollution of the waters. The early Chinese freshwater culturing efforts were ridiculed. These seed pearls were likened to rice krispies! But by the 1990’s, the Chinese had become the masterful pearl producers. Their experimentation with bleaching and dying pearls, as well as their creation of an incredible range of pearl shapes and sizes, has changed the face of the pearl forever. The perfect round beauty now has flat, rectangular, and potato shaped members in its extended family!
Although cultured pearls are equally as beautiful as naturally occurring ones, they are much less expensive because they are readily available. Now moonlight dropped into the sea can be captured by anyone.
"Mandarin Moon" - Mabe and Potato Pearls
“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” The origins of this old saying and the bridal tradition it represents are in Victorian England, tucked into a little book entitled Happy is the Bride the Sun Shines On. Bridal bouquets often hold flowers that symbolize attributes the bride hopes to bring to her marriage: stephanotis for marital happiness, white roses for unity, celandine for joy. The language of flowers was also a Victorian creation. Another time honored wedding custom, the wearing of pearls, soundly predates Victorian England. Ancient Hindu texts from 1000 B.C. claim that Lord Krishna discovered the first pearls and gave them to his daughter on her wedding day to symbolize love and purity.
In ancient Greek wedding ceremonies, pearls were given to the bride to assure a blissful union. Crusading knights brought pearls back from the Middle East to give to a fair damsel on her wedding day. In the courts of 15th century France, wedding celebrations were awash with pearls. The bride and all of her guests, both men and women, attended the celebrations dripping in priceless, naturally occurring pearls.
Throughout contemporary history, famous brides have continued to include pearls in their wedding finery. For her wedding in 1941, Gloria Vanderbilt selected a perfect single strand choker from her family’s pearl collection. Queen Elizabeth II wore a stunning pearl tiara and double strand pearl necklace to her nuptials in 1947. Jackie Kennedy chose a single strand of round pearls for her wedding day in 1953, and pearls became her signature accessory. When Grace Kelly married Prince Rainer of Monaco in 1956, a classic pearl necklace was her jewel of choice. Since the advent of the cultured pearl industry in the early part of the 20th century, the custom of giving pearls as gifts for the bride to wear on her wedding day passed from the privileged few to the multitudes of deserving brides.
Modern brides incorporate the tradition of bridal pearls into other wedding customs, as well. Family heirloom cultured pearl teardrops are worn as the bride’s “something old.” Other brides are given a new pearl treasure to grace their weddings and then pass on to future daughters on their wedding days. One bride’s “something new” becomes another’s “something borrowed.” Because of the refined dying techniques perfected by the Japanese, pearls are now available in every color of the rainbow and then some. A spunky bride can even have her “something blue” be sapphire blue pearls to wear or tuck into her bouquet. Besides the symbolism of the flower choices, a bridal bouquet frequently has something of significance hidden in the flowers or in an attached satchel: a love poem, devotional jewelry, or great grandmother’s pearl rosary.
Pearls are traditional gifts for members of the bridal party, too. As symbols of love, pearls serve as a classic remembrance of a celebration of love. Cultured pearls are not just round either. Luminous coin pearls, for example, are so named because of their flatness and brilliant luster. But not all coin pearls are circular coin shapes. Some are rectangles, crosses, and even stars! Many bridal parties are completely adorned with pearls to match the wedding color palette and style of the bride––classic single strands create a traditional look, delicate seed pearls paired with crystals add romance, coin pearls are opulent and regal, mabé pearls make the contemporary fashion statement, and Biwa are for nature girls!
Since the discovery of the first naturally occurring pearl, perhaps by seaside hunter gatherers in a perpetual search for food, pearls have been on a journey from obscurity to the quintessential “have-to-have” in every woman’s jewelry box.
Pearls weren’t found in every bivalve mollusk our ancestors popped open for the sweet meat inside, but they would have come across them intermittently. A little knowledge of the power of intermittent reinforcement tells us that pearls probably acquired a “sought after” reputation. In this time before recorded history, pearls may have become a treasured byproduct of the quest for food. It seems a good place to start the pearl’s junket to the jewelry box.
Considering three or four perfect pearls can be harvested from a ton of oysters, it’s easy to see how pearl ownership remained the domain of the rich for centuries. Free-diving pearl hunters dove to depths of up to 100 feet to manually open the mollusks in search of the elusive pearl. Today the sea women–Ama–of Japan still dive holding their breath, not taking advantage of the diving gear invented in the early 1900’s. From Caesar and Cleopatra to Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots, naturally occurring pearls were worn with pride solely by the privileged until the arrival of another invention of the early 1900’s.
Independently of one another, three Japanese men–a carpenter, a noodle maker, and a government biologist–figured out ways to get oysters to produce round pearls on demand by introducing an irritant into the mollusk’s mantle or body. Freshwater mollusks had been coaxed into pearl production for some time, but the pearls produced were mabé, pearls that grew against the inside of the oyster shell and, therefore, weren’t round. Each of the three men held patents, but the noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimoto, and his Akoyo pearl prevailed. He is credited with bringing pearls within reach of common folk worldwide.
Rainbow Mabé pearl earrings, 13/16" diameter with unique post/clip closure
By the 1920’s, virtually anyone who wanted to could twirl a long strand of pearls while dancing a Charleston. After WWII, single strands of pearls became the classic accessory for Grace Kelly and everybody’s mom and grandmother, as GI’s brought Akoya pearls home from Japan. Coco Chanel raised pearl wearing to a new level and showed women how to drape and layer pearl strands of different lengths and pearl size. In the 1960’s, tiny seed pearls gained renewed popularity, having been the the source material for intricate and romantic creations a century earlier. And, today’s brides search for a traditional pearl creation that will be as meaningful to them as Krishna’s gift of pearls was to his daughter on her wedding day.
The rich and famous will continue to own the rarest pearls: Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor La Peregrina, one of the most celebrated pearls in existence, and Jackie Kennedy was gifted a strand of rare, yellow Margarita pearls by the president of Venezuela. Princess Diana commissioned a gown to wear on a state trip to Hong Kong in 1989. It was completely covered in pearls, hand embroidered in place. Equally precious now are the heirloom pearls everyday people add to their jewelry collections everywhere to pass on to those princesses and first ladies everyone knows.