Prized throughout history, the iridescent gems are lovely little anomalies of nature
On April 28, Nat Geo Wild will premiere a documentary about Australian pearls called Secret Life of Pearls. Created by Paspaley Pearling Co., an important producer of South Sea pearls, the doc is set in Western Australia’s remote Kimberly region and in what those Down Under call the Top End, the extra-remote stretch of coast along the country’s Northern Territory.
It’s a place close to my heart. In 2000, my first jewelry-writing assignment brought me to a Paspaley pearl farm in the Arafura Sea, a rustic outpost on Australia’s crocodile-infested Cobourg peninsula (the top of the Top End). The guys who worked the farm, blond and red-necked from the sun, lived in camp-like bunkers protected from the area’s marauding banteng cattle, wild boars, and saltwater crocs by an electrified fence. Their sole duty was to care for the Pinctada maxima oyster shells that thrived in an impressive aquaculture operation just offshore and to ensure that the South Sea pearls nurtured inside grew safely to size. Every night, they ate fried oyster meat or “pasta surprise” prepared by Bernie, the 93-year-old toothless chef, and when they ventured off the farm they went only as far as the honky-tonk town of Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.
It was a wild, wonderful introduction to the pearl trade. Reflecting on it, I was inspired to dig up these fun facts about the gems:
1. The grain of sand explanation is a myth.
Pearls are the anomalies of the gem world. Not only do they come from a living animal—in this case, a mollusk—they derive their pearly iridescence from an organic substance called nacre. What’s more, they emerge from their shells as finished products, no faceting or shaping required.
Most popular explanations of how a mollusk creates a pearl begin with a grain of sand, but pearl experts are quick to dismiss that notion. A microscopic organism is the more likely culprit. When the interloper finds its way into the fleshy part of a mollusk’s shell, the animal secretes nacre to coat the irritant. Over time, the process forms a pearl.
2. Baja California produces beautiful black pearls from the Pinctada mazatlanica and Pteria sterna saltwater oysters.
Baja pearls range in color from a silvery white to black, aubergine, and pink. Long known as wholly natural pearls, they have been cultured steadily and successfully since the 1990s. Both the Pinctada mazatlanica (La Paz black-lipped oyster) and Pteria sterna (western-winged rainbow-lipped oyster)—found in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the narrow 700-mile sliver of water separating the Baja peninsula from the mainland—grow up to 20 cm in size. They yield 8 mm–10 mm pearls prized for their unique overtones and rainbow iridescence.
A culturing operation, Perlas del Mar de Cortez, continues to thrive in Guaymas on the coast of Sonora state. The farm is open to visitors from Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.–12 p.m. (For more information, call +52-622-221-0136 or visit this website to learn more about the pearls.)
Baja pearls from Perlas del Cortez (photo courtesy of PerlasdelCortez.com)
3. The real story about Cleopatra’s banquet and that pearl.
Among the most colorful tales in the pearl world is that of the legendary banquet where Cleopatra bet Marc Antony that she could host the most expensive dinner in history. I defer to the author and noted pearl expert Fred Ward for the details on the apocryphal tale.
According to Ward’s book Pearls, the queen hoped to impress Antony and the Roman Empire he represented with the extent of Egypt’s wealth. In her clever attempt to do so, she crushed one large pearl from a pair of earrings and dissolved it in a goblet of wine (or vinegar), before gulping it down. “Astonished, Antony declined his dinner—the matching pearl—and admitted she had won,” Ward writes, adding that Pliny, often called the world’s first gemologist, estimated the two pearls’ worth at 60 million sestertii, or roughly $28.5 million in today’s dollars.
4. Natural pearls go by many names: Oriental, Persian Gulf, and Basra, for example.
Starting around 2,000 years ago, the finest pearls were found in the waters of the Persian Gulf and spawned an industry that famously settled around Bahrain, Qatar, and Basra, a trading hub in Iraq. In the early 20th century, the depletion of the gulf’s oyster population and the advent of cultured pearls put an end to the trade. Today, the terms Oriental pearls, Persian Gulf pearls, and Basra pearls are used interchangeably, but they all denote natural pearls from the world’s most storied oyster beds.
Incidentally, just one-half of 1 percent of the world’s pearls are natural, according to Ki Hackney and Diana Edkins, the authors of People and Pearls: The Magic Endures. So when a natural pearl necklace goes on the auction block—and fetches $9 million dollars, as this seven-strand pearl and diamond necklace did in 2013 at Christie’s Geneva—what you’re seeing is a piece of history rescued from old stocks.
Composed of 614 natural pearls, this seven-strand necklace sold for $9,080,847 at Christie’s Geneva in November 2013 (photo courtesy of Christie’s).
5. The warmth of the water in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines accounts for the luster and satiny finish of the finest South Sea pearls.
After a long, enlightening, and very nitty-gritty conversation about pearls with GIA’s Dona Dirlam and Robert Weldon, I learned that the likely reason South Sea pearls, the largest and most valuable of the nacreous varieties, boast such a strong degree of luster and a signature satiny finish is because the warm waters of the southern Pacific Ocean expedite the growth of nacre, resulting in deeper layers of the lustrous material that gives pearls their distinctive iridescence.
Touchstone Diamond Tassel pendant with one 15 mm round Australian South Sea pearl in 18k rose gold with 0.93 cts. t.w. diamonds, AU$15,800 ($12,184); Paspaley Pearls (photo courtesy of Paspaley.com)
6. Conch and melo pearls are porcelaneous.
Two of the rarest and most valuable types of pearls are conch and melo pearls, but they differ from traditional pearls in one crucial way: They are both made of porcelaneous (non-nacreous) material.
Conch pearls, indigenous to the Caribbean waters near the Bahamas, are born of the Strombus gigas, aka the Queen Conch shell, a univalve species of mollusk best known for producing natural pink pearls with a telltale flame-like pattern. Melo pearls, on the other hand, are products of the Melo melo sea snail native to the Andaman and South China seas. At their best, they boast a rich orange color that resembles that of a ripe papaya.
This conch pearl, enamel, and diamond bracelet by Cartier, c. late 1920s, sold for $3,461,147 at Sotheby’s Geneva in November 2012, setting a record for the sale of a conch pearl jewel (photo courtesy of Sotheby’s).
7. Pearls do a body good.
Kokichi Mikimoto—the son of a noodle maker in Toba, Japan, who invented a method for culturing pearls in 1893 and had the marketing savvy to promote his new products around the world—believed that pearls aid longevity. According to People and Pearls: The Magic Endures, he ate two pearls for breakfast every morning and died in 1954 at age 96. Bon appétit!
Kokichi Mikimoto (photo courtesy of Mikimoto.com)