Isle of Wight Pearl Centre: The history of pearls

To find one perfect pearl, 10,000 wild oysters need to be opened: men died in diving for them, and it is the implicit danger of the getting of pearls that has made them a gift to be cherished.

They are bitter-sweet. How can something so perfect emerge from a shell so rough, and from a creature so unprepossessing? Indeed, how can the sophisticated industry we know today arise from the hessian sacks of the pearl markets of rural China?

What makes the song of the Pearl Fishers by Bizet loved by so many is the haunting sorrow underlying the lilting beauty of the melody. In John Steinbeck’s novel, The Pearl, the son of a fisherman finds the jewel that can light the way to a more just world – but with the potential to corrupt. In the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples of a merchant who sells all his goods for one pearl of great price.

That was then, you might say. Today we don’t wait for the hit-and-miss lottery that used to constitute pearl fishing. Today’s pearl industry has taken out the uncertainty of it all. Well, up to a point. While pearls are now available and affordable, it is a fact that man is almost in control – but not quite. So their mystery, and therefore their romance, remains.

These days they are valued not just for their perfection, but for their unique imperfections. For today’s chokers, dangly earrings and pendants the jewels need to be as irregular and as erratic as hemlines. Black pearls – which actually have a bluey hue with almost purply highlights – are full of sultry sophistication at night, but during the day, different temperatures mean the sky blues emerge, making them a gorgeous complement to denim. The colour of black pearls is mostly natural, but even pearls which have been dyed in exotic colours, the latest of which is a warm chocolate, they still have the iridescence of the natural product.

Yet the classic round or oval pearl in white or cream will never date. A necklace of pearls gives a woman the sort of subtle illumination which photographers try to achieve with their lighting. What is pleasing is that their lustre improves with wear: not for these jewels a life in storage, like a prized art collection imprisoned from the eyes of the world. The human skin warms and protects the pearl.

There is still a hierarchy in the pearl world, and their price reflects this. Southsea and Tahitian Pearls come from two of the largest molluscs and can only be grown in the warm seas surrounding Tahiti, Polynesia and Australia. The more perfect they are in shape and lustre, the more costly they are.

Pearls are formed when a piece of grit or other irritant gets into the shell of a mollusc: not necessarily an oyster, though the hinged nature of the oyster or mussel shell, coupled with their way of feeding, means the shell is always slightly open – which means pearl potential.

The creature deals with the irritant by secreting concentric rings of nacre, calcium carbonate. It is the build-up of layer on layer of this iridescent substance which gives a pearl its luminosity. Sadly a grain of sand is not sufficient to irritate the mollusc: if it were, our seashores would be littered with precious pearls.

Pearls today are cultured, of course, that is they are created by nature but induced by man. Their availability is greater so their price has become affordable. But what man cannot do is ensure their perfection, however hard we try.

And we try! This is no hit and miss affair. To emulate the irritant in an oyster, a mother of pearl bead – the nucleus of the pearl-to-be – is inserted, by one very skilled ‘nucleator’ into the shell. The water temperature has to be raised slightly to trick the mollusc into voluntarily opening up. A wedge keeps the shell open while the nucleator does his stuff –  quickly so as not to cause the mollusc any discomfort. The same process is used for Freshwater pearl nucleation except a piece of mantle tissue from a donor mussel is used.

You might think that a simpler solution could be found – and indeed other materials have been tried as nucleus beads. But in order for the pearl to expand and contract in every environment from a chilly day at Ascot to a steamy nightclub, the nucleus has to do the same. It needs to resist cracking and hold its own shine just like the pearl it has formed.

In Julius Caesar’s time a whole war was funded on the cost of one pearl. Cleopatra demanded that Mark Anthony crush a pearl into his wine and drink it: to prove the cost of his love. Today the mystery of pearls remains – because we have almost got control of their creation, but not quite.

Caring for your pearls: Advice from Isle of Wight Pearl

Last on, first off: perfume, hairspray, and make-up can harm them, so your pearl jewellery should be the last thing to put on when getting dressed.

Best when worn:
don’t stash them away for your grandchildren.
Enjoy wearing them!

Keep them clean: but only with a damp cloth now and again (solvents can harm them).

Re-string pearl necklaces regularly: Isle of Wight Pearl offers a such a service, as well as undertaking repairs and bespoke design commissions.

Avoid perfume: the nacre will be damaged so the pearls will become dull.

Storage:  place pearls in a soft box or pouch before placing in a jewellery box with
other items.