Monday, 15 October 2012

Dear as the wet diver to the eyes 
Of his pale wife, who waits and weeps on shore, 
By sands of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf;
 Plunging all day in the blue waves; at night, 
Having made up his toll of precious pearls,
 Rejoins her in their hut upon the shore.

the words of Sir Edwin Arnold (journalist and poet 1832 -1904) using his poetic license to write a job description of a pearl diver.

I hardly know where to begin so much is written about pearls, from the wonderful imaginative myths of the ancients to the duller pragmatic accounts. I know I prefer to hear that the water that dropped from Venus’ body; as she emerged from the sea, was so affected by her beauty that it formed into Pearls. Slightly more romantic than: When a mollusc is invaded by a parasite or a foreign object that it can't eject, a process known as encystation covers the irritant in successive, concentric layers of nacre; a pearl is eventually formed.

The process of natural pearl formation is so rare that only 1 in 10,000 shells may produce a gem-quality pearl. As the layers of nacre tend to maintain the irregular shape of the original irritant, most natural pearls are irregularly shaped. Natural pearls which are round or spherical in shape are even more rare.

This baroque drop-shaped natural pearl weighing 239.7 grains (59.92 carats) 
 was sold for just under £160,000 at a Christie’s sale.

In the early 20th century demand for pearls led to Japanese scientists developing cultured pearls. By planting a polished bead made from special mussel shell along with a small graft of mantle tissue from a live oyster; the molluscs produce pearls. A typical fresh water mussel can produce up to 16-32 pearls at a time whereas the saltwater oyster can only produce 1 or 2 pearls at a time. Cultivation takes from two to four years depending on conditions, variety and whether it is a fresh or salt water mollusc.
My cultured pearls - I do  have matching earrings -
 I can't remember where I put them though....

Imitation or simulated pearls are entirely manmade. A bead is dipped into a mixture based on crushed fish scales known as "essence d’orient". This coats a bead and produces an imitation pearl. Other lower quality imitations may be made from plastic or ceramics. These are used for costume jewellery and provide an inexpensive way of imitating cultured pearls.

In my next blog, identifying "real" pearls, looking after pearls and more about mother of pearl.

If you really do want to read in detail about pearls take a look at this wonderful book written in 1908 The Book of the Pearl (available to read online).

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