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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Pearls Before Swine (Put Your Pearls on Before You Eat Your Bacon)

Untreated Natural Color Akoya Pearls
I mentioned in my last posting that I would be writing about pearls in this post and that's exactly what I'm going to do.  I've written about pearls before but I've been writing this blog for so long now I don't expect anyone just finding me to go all the way back to the beginning to find the articles.  So I'm going to start from the beginning on pearls and if you've read about this before, just look at the pretty pictures.

But first a few quick notes.

 1) We will only be closed for the day of July 4.  Usually I close for some time around the beginning of July but we will not be doing that this year.

 2) Cambridge is working at eliminating parking spaces from the streets as quickly as it can so I again want to remind you that we do have a parking space available most of the time.  But you have to call ahead and ask me if it's available and where it is. Please feel free to do so.

 3) I routinely get customers in who swear to me that they read my blog all the time.  But none of you seem to want to make a comment ever.  This drives me nuts because I don't know if you're reading the blog if you never tell me on the blog itself. I have to wait until you come in the store and say "Oh, that last thing you wrote was really interesting".  I read other blogs and all kinds of people make comments.  What is up with that folks???? So anyone who posts a comment on this article can get a $25 credit against any case purchase in the future. I don't care what the comment says or is about. If you want to tell me my haircut looks stupid that's fine. I don't even care if you just want to tell me the latest joke you've heard. They are all good for that credit.  It gets lonely here sometimes....

So pearls....Pearls have been around for a long time as a jewel.  Well all gem materials have been around for a long time (they may just not have been found yet), but pearls have been known about and used as ornamentation for a lot longer than most (some believe they may be the oldest gem materials used). Originally pearls were natural, organic substances.  They would grow in oysters (or freshwaters would grow in mussels in rivers) in the ocean.  It is thought that some form of irritant would kick off the process of nacre forming around it and ultimately a pearl would form.  Finding truly round pearls was extremely rare as the process is a natural process and couldn't be controlled in any way.

The pearling industry was huge for quite a few years.  It was, in a typical human fashion, so large that the major pearling areas were fished out over a number of years.  By the late 1800's most of the world's largest pearl beds had been overfished to the point of extinction.  In 1919 oil was discovered in the Persian Gulf and the final remaining natural pearl beds of any size were ruined from the resulting pollution (as well as the over harvesting). 

It was extraordinarily convenient then that at about this same time period a couple of Japanese entrepreneurs (Mikimoto was one of them) had worked out a way to grow a cultured pearl in an oyster.  While experiments resulting in pearl like entities had been ongoing for a number of years, the Japanese managed to perfect the result.  They discovered they could put a round bead nucleus (made of shell from American fresh water fisheries as it happens) into an akoya oyster and in a few years, a growth of nacre had formed around it creating a round (well sometimes) pearl.  One of the keys to this development was figuring out how to get the bead nucleus into the oyster without killing it or stressing it out too much and then keeping them alive for the requisite growth period. 
Untreated Cultured Blue Grey Akoya Pearls

Originally, all of the cultured pearls available were grown in Japan.  The Japanese waters were cool which slowed growth down somewhat.  Additionally the type of oyster they could use was relatively small and pearls over the size of 9 mm were virtually unheard of.  As long as the pearls were kept in the oysters for a long enough period, the nacre that was created in the somewhat cooler waters, usually produced a far better luster than seen elsewhere.  Over time, some pearl farmers tried to speed up the growth process and wouldn't let the pearls remain in the oysters long enough which led to thinner nacre and lower luster, albeit cheaper, pearls.

In the 1970's and 1980's over development and pollution, along with a number of other economic factors (including China's entry into the cultured pearl market and the developing South Sea cultured pearl industry) reduced the number of Japanese pearl farmers drastically and the number of Japanese akoya pearls being sold.  As it happens the Japanese took their knowledge and sold it to China as the industry there ramped up.  While the Chinese produced akoya pearls, they were almost always lower quality (and produced in huge quantities which dragged the prices down of all the goods).

The Japanese also produced some of the best known freshwater pearls for a period of time.  The term "Biwa" pearl came into existence because of how many freshwater pearls were produced in Lake Biwa in Japan.  While natural freshwater pearls had been around in the past (New Jersey produced large numbers in the early 1800's and Tennessee was a large source), the same issues confronting natural salt water pearls, over fishing and industrialization and the resulting pollution, eliminated most of them.  Freshwater pearls are produced by inserting a piece of mantle tissue into a mussel and allowing a growth to form around that. The resulting pearls were usually a free form shape, which for jewelers like me, were much more interesting.  However Japan was faced with pollution in its lakes as well (which we believe led to some fascinating highly metallic looking pearls for awhile) and ultimately the freshwater pearl industry there pretty much stopped as well.
Bead Nucleated Freshwater "Edison" Pearls

In the meanwhile, the Chinese were moving at a rapid speed in the freshwater pearl market as well.  They produced so many low quality pearls that the prices on all of them plummeted as the market was flooded with a large amount of junk.  So then they turned to trying to produce a true round pearl to replace the Japanese akoya pearl industry that had was pretty much disappearing.  They were quite successful at this, but the resulting pearls have just never been as nice as the Japanese akoyas were.  The luster was never the same and if you held a strand of the Chinese freshwater rounds next to the Japanese akoyas, you would immediately see the difference.

However, both Japanese and Americans have been working with the Chinese in the last couple of decades and new products are coming out all the time.  The latest thing has been bead nucleated fresh water pearls in which round bead nuclei are inserted into the mussel and a pearl forms around it.

3 Strand of Untreated Akoya Cultured Pearls
Truly, to fully talk about the pearl industry I would need to write a small book and a single blog article doesn't lend itself to that.  This is meant to provide you with an overview and, as usual, I have a reason for presenting it to you now.  I recently saw one of my sources who I don't get to see very often as she was here exhibiting at a jeweler's conference, and she had some stunning strands of pearls which you can see pictured here.  At the top is a strand of multicolored akoya pearls, completely and totally untreated (no sun bleaching, no anything).  Also there is a strand of blue grey untreated akoya pearls.  The larger strand of multicolor pearls are called Edison pearls (that's the name of the company).  They are untreated (natural color) bead nucleated freshwater pearls.  All of these strands are stunning.  And the akoya strands are the first of any quality I have seen a number of years.  So while I don't normally sell round pearls I found these hard to resist.  The blue grey pearls are baroque as are the Edisons.  The Edisons have the size of South Sea pearls but are somehow completely different looking.  Please come by and take a look.  Even if you don't buy them, you aren't going to see a lot of material like this anywhere else these days.

I'll be looking forward to your questions and comments!


  1. Hi Daniel ... such beautiful photos of these gorgeous pearls and a very informative article as well. I want you to know that I love the pearl and diamond pendant you made for me. So much so that even if I don't wear it during the day, I wear it at home in the evening because it is so beautiful and makes me feel so happy to wear it.

  2. When is the book coming out?

  3. Nice article! Love your designs.

  4. Just wanted to say I found your blog since I fell in love with some brazilian emeralds on a recent trip to Bahia, and came back wondering if I could find anything as beautiful locally here in Boston for an engagement ring. Thanks for describing the issues with hardness so thoroughly. The next time I'm in Cambridge I'll definitely stop by your shop.

    1. You can find beautiful emeralds pretty much anywhere if you are working with jewelers who sell high quality goods. They don't make great engagement rings however due to their fragile nature.

  5. If you still have them, I'll be sure to take a close look at the pearl necklaces next time I'm in your store. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of pearls with us.