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Quest for the Perfect Pearl

Quest for the Perfect Pearl

Luxurious and rare, pearls are one of nature’s wonders. Equally remarkable is the process that creates each gleaming gem.

A multi-strand cuff bracelet of glimmering pearls, off-set with diamonds. From Ellagem.
Click image above for slideshow.

The lore of the pearl is legendary, exotic and magical. Primitive societies likened pearls to the tears of mermaids or angels. Cleopatra reportedly created a lavish repast by crushing pearls into nectar. And legend has it that Pierre Cartier purchased his Fifth Avenue flagship store with $100 in cash and a double-strand, natural-pearl necklace valued at $1,000,000. 

While other precious gems wax and wane in popularity, pearls are always in vogue and perennially elegant, just right to don when meeting your prospective mother-in-law, boss, or the Queen. Thirty years ago Ella Gafter (Gotham’s “pearl queen”) and her daughter Talila founded Ellagem, a company specializing in fine pearl jewelry. They still rhapsodize about the gem: “Pearls are soft, round, shiny, warm, and they move and sway with the body,” notes Talila. “They reflect light, brighten the face. . . I cannot think of a more desirable material to work with in designing jewelry.”

Which is why, some six years ago, I traveled to French Polynesia to see first-hand where and how the legendary Tahitian pearl—the cherished bounty of paradise—is grown, nurtured, and harvested, a system that repeats itself in many other countries, where mollusks produce pearls of varying colors, quality, and size when an irritating foreign substance enters the shell. Prior to the man-made invention of culturing, pearls were supposedly sculpted by the mythic God Poseidon. And so it is that the Federal Trade Commission classifies pearls into three categories: natural, man-made (cultured), and imitation (think plastic beads).

Cultured Pearls: The process of culturing pearls is a mere century old, credited to the relentless, resourceful Kokichi Mikimoto of the eponymous company known for its stunning, white Akoya pearls. Determined to develop a method using human intervention to create a pearl, he implanted many types of foreign matter into oysters, encouraging them to produce “nacre” (calcium carbonate) around the foreign object to isolate it from the mollusk’s hard shell. 

A century later, pearl-farming was perfected, but it is still a primitive and entirely hand-manipulated process that begins by raising oysters to be hosts. For anywhere from six months to three years, these freeloading babies are nurtured in tranquil bays, where their health is constantly scrutinized. When they’re big enough to start earning their keep, they go under the knife: A worker uses a tiny wooden wedge to open the oyster a crack, make a tiny incision deep within the reproductive sac, and insert a bead composed of the crushed shell of a Mississippi mollusk—coated with antibiotics—that will form the nucleus of the pearl. 

Once the bead is implanted, the oysters are “calmed,” and returned to tranquil bays where their job is to make a pearl! They are carefully monitored for what could be years: Different types of oysters require varying amounts of time, but “gestation” ranges from about two to seven years. The longer they’re submerged, the more likely they are subject to trouble—a red tide, water-borne irritants, even foul weather. Any disruption can alter a pearl; conversely, the longer they are submerged, the prospective gem. 

The iconic pearl necklace is comprised of Akoya pearls; it is a graduated strand, usually about 17" to 19", consisting of pearls ranging from 3 mm to 7 mm in hues of creamy white and rosy pink. It is bred abundantly in Japan, China, and Vietnam.

The most aspirational of pearls, the gumball-size South Sea pearl, comes from Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar, and is known for its amazing luster and satiny glow. These pearls range in size from 8 mm to a whopping 18 mm, or even larger (the genetic jackpot!). They are blindingly white, but they can also be golden-bronze, when bred in a slightly different oyster; their cousins are the Tahitian black pearls, which are typically ebony and gunmetal colored, but they can also be pistachio, aubergine, and cobalt blue. Fresh water pearls come in all shapes and in irregular sizes, and they are cultivated in the US, Japan, and China. Their color palette is rich—a rainbow of pinks, oranges, lavenders, and of course there are the familiar creamy whites. Keshi seed-like pearls are usually formed accidentally and they are typically irregular in shape. 

Harvesting Pearls: When pearls are harvested, an oyster that has produced a relatively fine gem may be cultivated again; pearls that produce lesser gems are thrown away, destined perhaps to become buttons. Perfect pearls are rare: A flawless sphere, known among aficionados as “an eight-way roller” (because it rolls with ease) has unspoiled surface skin; a color that sparkles like flickering ash; gleaming surface luster; and the most elusive quality of all—an inner glow referred to as orient; thickness of the nacre and size are also factors in quality and pricing.

While Akoyas are more common and less expensive, a gem-quality, triple-A strand of 9 mm. Akoyas could conceivably cost more than a less-than-stellar necklace of 9 mm. South Sea pearls. Quality matters and as Renee Sethi-Moondra, a vice president of Tara Pearls, designers of pearl jewelry, underscores, “Making a perfect necklace—matching size, color, quality—could take months or years.”

If you recognize that there is a high failure rate in bringing a necklace to market, then you understand all the more why they are such special, valuable items. If a farmer starts with 100 oysters and pops a bead into each one, he may lose 50 percent of his crop right away, as the oyster rejects the bead. Of the remaining 50, some die and some produce inferior quality pearls. The farmer might produce 30 pearls worth selling, and of that 30, only two or three will be considered “gem quality.” As Kathy Grenier, the spokesperson for the Cultured Pearl Association of America reminds us, “You get only one pearl per shell, and that is after years of tending and care, and not every pearl is of gem quality. So when you have a gem-quality pearl, it is a special gift.”

For additional information see the Cultured Pearl Association of America website.

Ruth J. Katz is currently the Style Editor of Promenade magazine and has covered service, shopping, and design for more than 20 years as an editor at Redbook, Colonial Homes, Classic Home, The Modern Estate, and New York Home magazines; she wrote for many years for The New York Times and New York magazine and appeared weekly on Fox TV as the Home Services Editor. She is the author of five books.