Pearls were known to the most ancient civilizations in China, Egypt, Greece, Persia and Rome. They have been worn as ornamentation for at least two and a half thousand years: the oldest known pearl necklace (three stands of seventy-two pearls) dating back to the sixth century BC was discovered in the burial chamber of an Achaemenian prince. In myths and legends pearls are often associated with tears: in Japan they are the tears that a heartbroken princess shed into the sea; for the Greeks they are the tears of Venus; for the Romans they are the solidified tears of angels; in the Muslim religion they are the tears that Adam and Eve cried for their sins. This doubtless explains why pearls have always symbolized love and purity.Today one should always differentiate between fine pearls and cultured pearls. All pearls are a more or less spherical concretion formed by layers of mother-of-pearl (or nacre), secreted by the mantle of sea pearl oysters or fresh water mussels. Fine pearls are formed when this secretion is a natural reaction to the intrusion of a small parasitic worm into the mantle.
As fine pearls grew increasingly rare, nineteenth-century producers decided to adapt a time-honored technique to artificially incite mollusks to secrete mother-of-pearl. This process consists of inserting a foreign body (in this case a fragment of nacre) under the mantle to trigger a reaction. The first attempts at producing cultured pearls took place in China and Japan, although the first real successes were achieved in Australia in 1900. Japanese cultured pearls were launched on the market in 1920. This was perfect timing as by then fine pearls were commanding astronomical prices.
Three years earlier Cartier had purchased premises on New York’s 5th Avenue in exchange for a double strand of pearls! Since 1950, whether from Japan or elsewhere (in particular Tahiti and its famous black pearls) cultured pearls have almost completely superseded fine pearls.The quality – and therefore the value – of a pearl is judged in accordance with the following criteria: the intensity of its orient (the iridescent luster produced when light hits the layers of nacre); the beauty of its color; the symmetry of its shape, be this spherical, pear or button; the evenness of its “skin” and of course its size and weight, measured in grains for fine pearls (one grain equals 0.05 grams) and in carats for cultured pearls. Hardness: 3.