Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pearls - the Queen of Gems

This article was inspired by two events.

I visited a Hyderabad Pearl exhibition in Calcutta.
I was surprised because there are no pearls in or around Hyderabad.
The fact is that the pearl smiths in Hyderabad import fresh water cultured pearls from China and transform them into beautiful ornaments.

On another occasion, I visited the Central Marine Research Centre in Tuticorin when they had just successfully made cultured pearls.
I saw the entire process.

I even learnt scuba diving there and went down inside the sea where the pearl oysters lived, bred and made the natural pearls.
Pearls are interesting ……..

What is the value of a pearl necklace?
A good pearl necklace is priceless.

A pearl can not be cut, polished and crafted like other gems.
A natural round pearl is a piece of art created by mother nature herself.
A really beautiful pearl is rare.
A necklace made of a number of pearls matching in colour, size, shape and lustre is therefore extremely expensive and worth a furtune.

Baroda Pearls – the most expensive pearl necklace

The Maharajah of Baroda, Khande Rao Gaekwar (rule 1856 – 1870), was one of the greatest jewellery collectors of the 19th century.
Amongst his pearl collections were an ornamental belt of one hundred rows of pearls;
a majestic seed pearl and a seven-strand necklace made of natural pearls from the Gulf.
When his descendant Maharajah Pratapsingh Gaekwar (rule 1939 – 1947) married his second wife, Maharani Sita Devi - one of the most flamboyant Maharanis of all time and referred to as the Indian Wallace Simpson - in 1943, Sita Devi received the pearl necklace and other items of jewellery from the Maharajah.
The pearl necklace was last seen on her neck in 1948.
Many items of her jewellery have since been sold in Monaco.
But the necklace remained in Baroda.

The Baroda Pearls - made out of the best pearls in the original necklace - a two-row seven-strand pearl necklace, comprising of impeccably matched 68 of the finest and largest pearls in the world, with a cushion cut Cartier diamond clasp, was auctioned at Christie’s in New York on April 25, 2007 for $7.1 million, setting a new world record for a pearl necklace.

The pearls measure 9.47 to 16.04 mm, from the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh strands.
The necklace has a matching pair of natural pearl and diamond ear pendants, a brooch, and a ring.

The previous record was set by a two-strand natural pearl necklace sold for $ 3.1 million at Christie’s in Geneva in November 2004.
Pearl of Allah

The Pearl of Allah (Pearl of Lao-Tse), the largest pearl on record, was recovered by a Muslim diver from a giant clam off the coast of Palawan Island, Philippines on May 7, 1934.
The chief of Palawan took the pearl because it had been found near his island.
Around 1939, Wilburn Dowell Cobb saved the life of the chief’s son.
The chief gifted the pearl to Cobb.
In 1980, Cobb’s heirs sold the pearl to Peter Hofman, a jeweler from Beverly Hills, for $200,000.
Peter Hofman still owns 33 percent interest in the pearl.

The pearl is 9.4 inches long and weighs about 14 lbs.
Its surface bears the semblance of a turbaned face.
The Pearl of Allah is valued at $40 million.

The giant pearl is also called the Pearl of Lao Tsu, after the legendary sixth-century B.C. philosopher known as the father of Taoism.
Replicas of the Pearl of Allah are on display in various museums around the world.

Paradoxically, although referred to as a pearl, and even treated as the largest pearl in the world, the Pearl of Allah is actually a non-nacreous calcareous concretion; and therefore gemmologically speaking, not actually a pearl.

The Hope Pearl

The Hope Pearl is the largest natural salt water pearl ever discovered.
It is a white, drop-shaped blister pearl, measuring approximately 2 x 4 inches, and varying in color from greenish gold on one end to white on the other.
It weighs 1,800 grains (450 carats), or approximately 4 ounces.

It was once owned by Henry Philip Hope, the one-time owner of the Hope Diamond.
Currently, it is displayed in the British Museum of Natural History.

Is the pearl a gem?

A pearl is a hard, round, shiny, lustrous object produced by certain species of the bivalve mollusks - an aquatic animal.
The freshwater pearls are produced by mussels and salt water pearls by oysters.

On the other hand, a gemstone, gem, precious or semi-precious stone is an attractive and valuable piece of mineral.
Pearls are certainly not gems, yet they are included in almost every book and writing on gems for the simple reason that they are used in jewellery.
When we talk of gems, we talk of diamonds, rubies, saphires, emeralds and other precious and semi precious stones………. but we also talk of pearls.

Pearls are prized like gems and widely used in jewellery.
Pearls are also crushed and used in indigenous medicinal formulations, in cosmetics and paint formulations.

Fresh water and salt water pearls

There are two kinds of pearls - fresh water and salt water - depending on where they are formed.

The fresh water pearls are formed in fresh water mussels that live in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water.
The pearls the Chinese first used - over 4000 years ago - were obviously fresh water pearls because they have been described as not quite round. Even today’s fresh water pearls are not that round.
China with a a total production of 1500 tons in 2006 is the undisputed world leader in fresh water pearl production.

The salt water pearls grow in oysters that live in the oceans, usually in protected lagoons.
Over 99% of the salt water pearls we see today are cultured pearls.
Generally, only a single pearl is found in a salt water oyster.
While, a large number of pearls can be found in one fresh water mussel.

Natural and cultured pearls

A pearl is formed when a small irritant or parasite penetrates and lodges in the mantle tissue of a mollusk.
The mollusk secretes nacre around this nucleus.
Nacre is a complex combination of crystalline and organic substances which builds up in layers surrounding the irritant forming a pearl.

Natural pearls are formed by chance.
The shape of the pearl depends on the shape of the nucleus.
The shape of a natural pearl is therefore unpredictable.
The odds of formation of a perfect natural pearl are 1 in a million.

Cultured pearls have been given a helping hand.
A foreign object is introduced into a mollusk thereby inducing the mollusc to secrete nacre around it and create a pearl.
The shape of the resultant pearl can be controlled to a great extent.
It is possible to grow large quantities of almost identical cultured pearls.

Today, nearly all pearls in the market - both fresh water and salt water - are cultured.

How to differentiate cultured pearls from natural

The simplest and scientific way of distinguishing cultured pearls from natural pearls is through x-ray.
The x-ray will reveal the nucleus of the pearl.
If the pearl is cultured, you will see the tell tale image of the synthetic nucleus implanted as an irritant.
There will be no visible nucleus in the case of a natural pearl.

The culturing process

Kokichi Mikimoto almost single handedly developed and commercialised the modern cultured pearl industry.
Mikimoto was born in 1858 in Toba City, Japan.
He was the eldest son in a family which ran a noodle restaurant.
He started raising oysters in 1888.
By the late 1890s, he patented a process for culturing mabes (hemispherical pearls).

Over the next two decades, Mikimoto continued with his research in culturing pearls, culminating in 1916 with his patenting a process for culturing spherical pearl.
He developed the modern techniques for culturing pearls and simultaneously pursuaded and convinced the public to accept the cultured pearls.
Mikimoto created the cultured pearl industry that exists today.
Mikimoto died in 1954 at the age of 96.

Technique for culturing pearls

Freshwater pearls and salt water pearls are nucleated differently.

Freshwater cultured pearls are not bead-nucleated.
A small incision is made in the fleshy mantle tissue of a 6 to 12 month old mussel.
A 3 mm square piece of mantle tissue from a donor mussel is inserted inside it.
A single mussel can with stand upto 25 such incisions.
But in practice, only 12-16 incisions are made for production of 24-32 pearls.
The mollusks are then returned to their freshwater environment where they are looked after for 2 to 6 years.
The resulting pearls are of solid nacre, but without a bead nucleus.
These pearls are rarely perfect round.

The salt water pearls are bead-nucleated.
The oysters are opened.
A small incision is made in the gonad (reproductive organ) and a round core or nucleus which is generally a polished bead made from a freshwater mussel shell is surgically implanted into the incision.
The oysters are returned to salt water.
The pearls which will form in about 2 years will be round.
An x-ray will reveal the tell tale nucleus.

Main types of salt water pearls

Today, the cultured pearl industry has effectively and totally replaced the natural pearl industry with production of cultured freshwater; and the three main types of salt water pearls - South Sea, Tahitian, and Mikimoto’s original Akoya pearls.

Pearl culture in India

Natural pearls were once found in plenty in Jam Nagar (Gulf of Kutch) and Thoothukudi (Gulf of Mannar).
Over the years, both these resources were depleted.
And today, India imports almost all her requirement of pearls.

In 1972, the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) started an experimental project of pearl culture at Thoothukudi.
The next year CMFRI achieved a breakthrough and produced the first spherical cultured pearl on July 25, 1973.

The Tamil Nadu Fisheries Development Corporation Ltd and Southern Petro Chemical Industries Corporation Ltd. started a joint venture pearl culture project in 1983.
But there has been no commercial success and the project has been leased out to private party.

In 1976, the CMFRI started a pearl oyster hatchery and spats (baby oysters) produced from the hatchery are supplied to pearl producers.

Artificial or synthetic pearls

These are cheap imitations made of glass, plastic, acrylic, etc.

Caring for your Pearls

· Pearls have an organic origin. They are scientifically different from gemstones and precious metals.
· They are softer and far more delicate. They can be more easily scratched, cracked, and damaged.
· Chemicals in perfumes and hair spray can harm pearls.
· Even natural body oils and perspiration can dull the pearls’ luster or cloud their brilliance.
· Acids present in lemon juice, citric fruits, etc. corrode pearls.
· For these reasons, your pearls require special care.
· Apply perfume, hair spray, and other cosmetics before putting on the pearls on your person. This way, you will minimise the contact of these products with the pearls.
· After wearing your pearls, wipe them with a soft damp cloth to remove any traces of cosmetic products and body oils.
· Wash the pearls periodically with mild soap water and a soft cloth, to remove any accumulated build-up.
· Store pearls separately, in soft cloth or in a soft-lined container, pouch, or jewellery box away from hard jewellery items, to prevent scratches or other damage. If possible, store them wrapped.
· If the pearls are strung, have the pearls restrung periodically - perhaps once a year or so, if you wear them often - to prevent strand breakage. Knotting the strands between each pearl will prevent all the pearls from falling off, if the strand breaks. Knotting will also prevent the pearls from rubbing against one another and causing damage by friction.
· With a little bit of care, your Queen of Gems will remain bright and lustrous for years to come.

No comments: