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Pearls: The evolution of a classic

By Duncan Parker

You might look forlornly at your showcase of pearls as you polish the glass, perhaps noticing there are fewer pesky fingerprints on that particular case. We don’t see a lot of excitement about pearls these days. The showcase where you keep your pearl merchandise is definitely not the one with lineups two deep, necks craning to see the treasures within.

Consumers look at pearls as ‘grandma’s jewels.’ Perhaps their grandmothers had graduated strings of pearls. Likely, grandma treasured those pearls and wore them almost all the time, and never was it the wrong moment to put on her glistening miracles from the ocean.

Pearls may be the oldest gem in the world. You might imagine a prehistoric cave dweller chomping down on a recently collected oyster, and after breaking a tooth, looking at the round, lustrous orb, rolling in the palm of an outstretched hand. If it was me, I’d be heading back to the beach to dig out some more of the shells to find more pearls.

Pearls are just about the only gems that are ready to use as soon as they are collected. That is why they are considered older than other gemstones, which have long been used in their rough state, but, it seems, only used for ornamentation later in history.

Natural beauty

We still see natural pearls that formed by pure good luck. This occurs when some irritant gets through to a shellfish and the shellfish coats it, layer by layer, with its shell material, like a snowball rolling down a hill gathers layers of snow. The longer it continues, the larger the pearl grows.

Natural pearls are very rare, and they have, historically, been the territory of the wealthy and of the royal houses of the world. There have never been enough to fulfill the needs of the wider gem market. Natural pearls have traditionally been collected in the waters of the Persian Gulf, as well as those around Japan, India, and Sri Lanka. They are still harvested today, but in very tiny quantities due to their very high cost and the fact they form rarely, by pure happenstance.

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The traditional source of pearls is oysters found in saltwater oceans. However, there are other sources as well. If you’ve been to Barbados and enjoyed a conch chowder, that remarkable spiral shell may have housed more than just your supper. Conch pearls are often bright pink, beautiful to look at, and quite rare and costly.

People have collected pearls from freshwater rivers and streams around the world, too. This has gone on for millennia. I recently read a Victorian novel that referred to the tragic loss of a strand of Scottish “river pearls.” These would likely be natural pearls found in clams in the cool waters of a Scottish river.

Quahog pearls are a rarity found in quahog clams in New Jersey and along the temperate eastern seaboard of the United States. These pearls are dark purplish colour, and are also very rare and valuable. Most quahog clams do not produce pearls.

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