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Pearls

Once upon a real and recent time, the pearl world was one of black and white. Mostly white.

When selecting, a pearl necklace or earrings, your decision would have been simply a matter of size, shape and quality factors like luster and complexion.

Color rarely entered into the discussion. What was there to discuss? Pearls, like diamonds, came in just one shade: white. Sure, the whiteness had variations to it. Some pearls were neutral. Others had a touch of pink, silver, yellow, or champagne. But, essentially, pearls were thought of as white—unless they were dyed black or some novelty color.

It’s no mystery why. The vast majority came from Japan where, just before World War I, Kokichi Mikimoto, the Henry Ford of modern mass-production pearl farming, perfected techniques to make a local saltwater oyster, the Pinctada fucata martensi, grow round, lustrous, white pearls. Known as the Akoya pearl, it has been a mainstay in American jewelry stores for 50 years at least.

Lately, however, shoppers are noticing a new spectrum of pearl types and tints. The Akoya cultured pearl has been joined by black and gray pearls from Tahiti, golden and cream pearls from Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as purple and orange pearls from China. Not only do pearls have different origins and hues, there is now a wide selection of jewelry featuring pearls: strands, earrings, pendants, rings, brooches, pins—you name it. There has never been such pearl variety and versatility.

As you will see, there are pearls for every taste, need, and budget.

MAN AND MOLLUSK

For the entire span of human history, mankind admired, even worshipped, pearls. In Persian mythology, they are called “the tears of the gods.” In some Muslim legends, the pearl is God’s first act of creation. No wonder, then, that for millennia people had sought ways to make mollusks grow pearls on demand rather than depend on the whims of nature. The Chinese even implanted tiny medallion-like Buddhas inside oysters to be encased in mother-of-pearl (nacre) and worn as amulets.

But it took until the very tail end of the nineteenth century to finally find a way to make mollusks grow full-fledged pearls. The first commercial cultivated pearls sold before 1910 were half, or dome, pearls grown directly on the inside of oyster shells.

Mikimoto’s full pearls, grown inside the flesh of the oyster, were another matter entirely. The best of them were indistinguishable from fine wild pearls.

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Pearls