Pearls have long played an important role in our lives. Records show that royalty have worn pearls as far back as the times of ancient China, Egypt and Greece. The earliest record seems to be from the Persian empire during the 6th century B.C. Archeologists found natural pearls buried in Prince Achaemenian’s tomb. The astounding discovery was proof of the history of how people used pearls as jewellery. Today, however, with our changing environment, natural pearls have become a rarity. In this past century specially, they have been regarded as one of the rarest gemstones of all.
Throughout history, there have been a lot of legends associated with pearls. Ancient Japanese literature used to describe pearls as the tears of a princess, while the ancient Chinese used to consider pearls as a symbol of power, and even used it for medicinal purposes.
Generations of royal physicians used to prescribe a mixture of pearl powder and honey as a mild tranquilizer. You can even find descriptions of pearls in the legendary romance between the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra and Roman General Anthony. Legend has it that the Queen prepared a lavish banquet to conquer Anthony’s heart. Determined to win him over, Cleopatra put a giant natural pearl into a glass of vinegar, so she could drink it in front of him after it had dissolved. Stories like this only seem to heighten the fascination for a treasure such as pearls.
Getting back to the facts of things, pearls are organic gemstones. Pearl oysters continuously secrete a substance called mother-of-pearl, wrapping grains of sands inside in a series of concentric layers. Actually, pearls are made of 90% calcium carbonate, some water and other organic substances. Pearls have a glow – differing in this way from any other gems – which is really the result of layering of the mother-of-pearl, which produces a nacreous sheen. A natural pearl loses its glow when it comes in contact with acidity.
And we’ve never really stopped liking pearls. The early 20th century was the golden era of natural pearls, which royal houses and the wealthy would purchase at unbelievable prices. In the Thirties, an American banker named Morton F. Plant sold his apartment on 653 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to Cartier, in order to purchase a double-strand of pearls worth one million U.S. dollars. That very address became Cartier’s flagship store in New York. Talk about priceless!
However, prices of pearls fell dramatically in the face of the Wall Street crash in 1929. The discovery of oil in the Middle East also motivated many pearl cultivators to switch jobs. On top of all this, Japanese cultured pearls became popular. Not only do cultured pearls cost much less than natural ones, the two types of pearls look rather similar.
In fact, cultured pearls looks shinier than natural ones. This is not a fair comparison, because over the past few decades, the quality of the waters where natural pearls were found have been compromised greatly, making it even harder to find natural pearls of superb quality. According to Christie’s Director for Jewellery and Jadeite in Asia, Vickie Sek, a natural pearl is considered more precious than any other gemstones. To understand why, just consider that rubies and jadeite can still be found in Myanmese mines, emeralds can be found in Colombia and so forth, but natural pearls are a unique rarity. In recent times, natural pearls sold on the market often come from the collections of old-world aristocrats. Avidly purchased by collectors in Europe, these pearls jump in value year after year.
For connoisseurs who look for one-of-a-kind finds, natural pearls are an ideal quest. Though the natural pearls of a necklace may not look as perfect and spherical as South Sea pearls, the woman wearing it knows she has a genuine treasure from nature. For this reason, collectors of natural pearls are generally discreet and disinclined to public exhibition: they are people who truly appreciate the art and joy of collecting.
Natural pearls will continue rising in value, not only because of their scarcity, but also because advanced technology can now be used to distinguish great natural pearls from merely good ones. Stop by world-renowned jewellery houses and you might find such a treasure, with a bit of luck. Otherwise, I’m afraid you will have to bid for one at an international auction.
China Fall 2010