Perfect Pearls - Luxury Travel Magazine

Perfect Pearls

By: Kayte Nunn, Issue 28 – Spring 2006
(Jewell Review Pearls)


Elizabeth I was so fond of pearls that she was reputed to have owned 3,000 seed pearl-encrusted dresses, 80 wigs set with pearls, as well as scores of pearl fans and bracelets. Pearls were said to be a symbol of her purity, and indeed many portraits of her show a woman bedecked in pearls from neck to toe, with pearls on even her shoes. Fast-forward several centuries and Elizabeth II wore pearls on her coronation gown and then again at her recent Golden Jubilee celebrations. In another time, Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon II, was renowned as a great collector of pearls, and possessed a fabulous strand of natural Tahitian pearls, as well as for a brief time, the famous Peregrina pearl (see box), and the ‘Queen Pear’, which weighed 4.65 grams.

At the turn of the 20th century, pearls were popular with American society figures, and royal and titled families in Europe and Russia alike. From US socialite Consuelo Vanderbilt to Czarina Alexandra, there was a preference for all-white jewellery featuring diamonds and pearls. In the 1920s Coco Chanel wore pearls with more casual clothes. She also mixed natural and imitation pearls, in necklaces and thick cuff bracelets. Exotic dancer Josephine Baker, nicknamed the ‘Black Pearl’, often wore nothing but hula skirts laced with pearls.

Audrey Hepburn was the epitome of elegance in the 1960s, with her strings of pearls, ballet flats and cigarette holder poised. As Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s she wore a stunning multi-stranded pearl and diamond necklace (though likely an imitation, as her character lacked the means for the real deal). Diamonds might have been a girl’s best friend, but Marilyn Monroe treasured the string of Japanese Akoya pearls that her baseball player husband, Joe DiMaggio, presented her with when they were on their honeymoon in Tokyo.

Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy marked their wedding days with pearls, and Jackie Kennedy’s signature look was that of pillbox and a triple strand of pearls. And another American president’s wife adopted pearls as the jewels of choice years later: Barbara Bush wrote in a letter, “I absolutely love my pearls... I have worn them for so long I hardly feel dressed without them.” Princess Diana too, was a noted pearl-lover.

Even way, way back, pearls had a significant place in life. The Ancient Greeks thought that pearls brought love and so favoured them at weddings, a practice that continues today in many cultures. For the Romans, pearls were a symbol of wealth and prestige: Julius Caesar was said to have invaded Britain in 55BC with the knowledge that Scotland was a source of some of the world’s finest pearls. Cleopatra was reputed to have boasted to Marc Anthony that, having the wealth of Egypt at her disposal, she could create the most expensive dish in the world, and placed a pearl in a cup of wine. The legend goes that the acid in the wine dissolved the pearl and she drank the liquid. The Koran describes pearls as one of the greatest treasures of paradise; Hindus associate pearls with the moon, as symbols of love and purity, and according to their scriptures, Krishna discovered the first pearl, which he gave to his daughter at her wedding.

Before the 20th century, the only way of harvesting pearls was to use free divers to retrieve the oysters found on the ocean floor or riverbed. The female Ama divers (it is thought that the higher body fat of women makes them more suited to the practice, enabling them to maintain their body temperature longer in cooler water) of Japan still practice this historic and often dangerous art. By the beginning of the 20th century, pearls were at a peak of popularity. However, demand was greater than the supply and this, combined with rising pollution from increasing industrialization, took its toll: the world’s natural pearl-producing oyster beds fell into mortal decline.

Cultured pearls had been produced as far back as 400 AD, in China, and in the 1740s naturalist Carl von Linné produced the first spherical cultured pearls. However, it was in 1893 that Japanese scientist Kokichi Mikimoto pioneered commercial cultivation by introducing particles of mantle into oyster shells and changed forever the course of pearl production. After more than 12 years of trial and error he produced the first spherical pearls that were indistinguishable from natural ones. Initially viewed as ‘fake natural’ pearls, within a few years these cultured pearls became recognized as the high quality, unique and valuable gems they are. Mikimoto became responsible for 75 percent of the world’s production of cultured pearls in the mid 20th century. A firm believer in the health benefits of pearls, he consumed two crushed pearls a day and died at the ripe old age of 97, having achieved his dream of making real pearl jewellery accessible to many. During the 1970s and 80s, pearls were relegated in the minds of the fashionable as something worn by their nannas or perhaps only for a wedding day, but the winds of fashion have changed, due in no small part to an innovative Australian industry, and today pearls are again celebrated for their timeless elegance and purity.

The Australian south sea pearl industry had its humble beginnings in the 1950s. Nicholas Paspaley established Australia’s first pearl farm in 1956 in Western Australia, and Paspaley Pearls is now Australia’s largest producer of the fine gems, supplying the likes of Tiffany & Co, Harry Winston and Cartier.

The Kailis family has been farming pearls off the coast of Broome, in Western Australia, for 30 years. Master jeweller of Kailis Australian Pearls, Simon Henderson, says that there is now a trend towards baroque pearls, “although our ultimate aim is to produce a high-quality round pearl”. The most desirable colour is a high-lustre white with pink tinges, “it almost glows,” he says. “Customers are becoming more and more educated about pearls, they want a pearl with high lustre and less marks. The Australian South Sea Pearl can deliver this.” He also reports a small but growing men’s market, particularly for ‘keshi’ pearls, which can range from 2-16 mm, and are naturally formed in farmed oysters. Being solid nacre, these have a very high lustre and are made into cufflinks, tie studs, and occasionally necklaces for men.

Autore South Sea Pearls, which sells around 600,000 pearls a year, is also attuned to the younger, more adventurous market. It partnered with swimmer and metro sexual man-about-town Ian Thorpe in 2002 to develop a contemporary, unisex range. As CEO Rosario Autore affirms, “the consumer is increasingly more informed that pearls are not just about the classic white round shape, and particularly the younger audience are looking for a greater range and more contemporary look. We are also seeing a greater variety of materials now used in pearl jewellery – resin, glass and even steel.” Australian South Sea Pearls are generally larger than those from other parts of the world and therefore command higher prices. And unlike pearls from some other nations, they are not coloured or bleached. In 1992 a South Sea Pearl necklace was sold at Sotheby’s in New York for US$2.3 million, setting a world auction record. Alluring indeed.


La Peregrina (The Pilgrim)
: Renowned for its perfect pear shape and bright whiteness, this 203.8 grain pearl was found off the coast of Panama in the 16th century and given to Philip II of Spain. After several changes of ownership it was purchased in 1969 by Sir Richard Burton for his wife Elizabeth Taylor who still owns it today.

The Big Pink Pearl: Weighing 470 carats, the Guinness Book of World Records lists this as the largest natural abalone pearl ever found. It is still owned by Wesley Rankin, who found it while diving in Petaluma, California in 1990.

The Hope Pearl: Thought to be the largest natural saltwater pearl ever discovered, weighing 1800 grains (450 carats). A white, drop-shaped blister pearl, this was once owned by Henry Philip Hope, the one-time owner of the Hope diamond. Now displayed in the British Museum of Natural History.

The Paspaley Pearl: Harvested in 2003 from a silver-lipped Pinctada maxima oyster on a Paspaley pearl farm off the northwest coast of Australia, this is a rare rose- hued pearl, 21mm in diameter. It is a perfect combination of size, shape, colour and lustre. Still owned by the Paspaley family.

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