Pearls – unique, natural jewels that have been known for several thousand years. They are the only gemstones created from living organisms. In ancient empires, there were many legends about them, mainly because their origin was so murky.
Legends and myths about pearls
In India, for example, people thought that pearls emerged from dewdrops that fell on the ground during a full moon and were caught by oysters. Greeks and Romans had a similar legend. In China, people believed they emerged from the saliva of fighting dragons that fell down to the Earth in the form of raindrops. Therefore, pearls were supposed to have the power to protect their wearers from fire. On the other hand, black pearls were thought to have originated in dragons’ heads, and the dragons then protected them behind their teeth. Therefore, only a person who could kill a dragon could get the black pearl. These pearls were a symbol of wisdom.
In Japan, legend has it that pearls originated from mythical creatures’ tears. In Sri Lanka and in Hebrew tales about pearls, Adam and Eve play a role. People believed that when they were expelled from Paradise, Eve wept white pearls and Adam wept black pearls. Myths and legends about pearls also exist in Polynesia, Persia and Hindu lands, which means that pearls were widely known throughout the whole ancient world.
Pearls throughout the centuries
Pearls were and still are very precious. In the Roman Empire, for example, one pearl was equal to the value of fifteen regions. Cleopatra took advantage of this and bet Mark Antony that she could prepare a feast spectacular enough to rival the wealth of the whole country. After the meal, Mark Antony stated that the feast was delicious, but it wasn’t better than any other feasts he’d experienced. Then, Cleopatra took off her pearl earring, crushed the pearl, and dissolved it in her goblet with vinegar. She drank it, and Mark Antony had no other option than to acknowledge his defeat. Pearls were much more valuable in the Roman Empire than in Egypt, and Cleopatra certainly used that fact to her advantage.
Interest in pearls didn’t drop off even in the Middle Ages. In the Baroque period, a painting shrouded in mystery, called “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” came into existence, and a certain famous pearl plays a major role in it. The painting by Johannes Vermeer is also known as the Mona Lisa of the North and has a crucial importance among Dutch art.
It has always been believed that pearls are strongly connected to love. They strengthen romantic relationships, solidify marriage and provide their wearers with protection, money and luck. Black pearls are said to heal broken hearts and bring new hope to them.
The origin of pearls and their properties
It wasn’t until the 18th century that people found out how pearls are really formed. A foreign particle, like a grain of sand, gets into an oyster or other type of mollusk and is then covered by nacre. Actually, this process is a form of protection for the animal inside the shell. Freshwater pearls are formed inside freshwater pearl mussels (nowadays a critically endangered species due to water pollution) or river mussels. In the ocean, they’re mainly formed by sea pearl oysters. Flat pearls might be formed by abalones of the Haliotos species, and pink pearls can be found in conch shells.
So, what is a pearl, really? It’s a form of calcium carbonate, mainly aragonite, with a small percentage of protein. Thanks to this, the surface of pearls is smooth and glossy. According to the Mohs scale of hardness, they are somewhere between 2.5 and 4.5. So, they are very soft, and if you dig into them using a sharp object, they are easily damaged. They also can’t endure contact with acids and alkalines, which etch their surface, cause the pearls to lose their lustre and cause the layers of nacre to start to break down.
Natural pearls are very rare, and the demand for them has increased during the years. In 1893, Mikomoto Kōkichi, a Japanese man, attempted to make a pearl artificially. He put a piece of nacre ball inside a shell and waited for the development. His reward was the first ever cultured pearl, and thus the breeding of pearl mussels and oysters began.
Breeding, farms and cultured pearls
Nowadays, pearls come from farms where the so-called “nucleus” is put inside a shell and is then covered with nacre. There are two methods to complete this process. In the first case, a fraction of another mussel or oyster’s shell is put inside a pearl oyster or mussel. It is covered by nacre, and after about a year, it can be transferred to another shell. Even large pearls can be cultured this way. This method is called the seed method.
The second way, the bead method, uses a different nucleus, which is placed in the mussel’s shell. In this case, a bead cut from another mussel or oyster’s shell is used as the nucleus. This method is faster than the seed method, as the final pearl is only a little larger than the original bead. The nacre layer usually isn’t thicker than 1 mm. However, the quality of these pearls is still considered to be high. In Asia, you can find a variety of nucleus shapes--even small Buddha figurines can be used.
It might seem that the problem of pearl scarcity could be solved by these methods, but that’s unfortunately not true. Only a small percentage of cultured pearls are of suitable quality for jewellery. In Tahitian pearls, for example, only 5% of the pearls formed are suitable.
Discover pearl jewellery you will love
The notion that pearls only belong in our grandmothers’ jewellery boxes is long gone. On the contrary, pearls look great on women of any age, and modern-day jewellery makers are creating really amazing design pieces. In our collection, you can find modern pearl pendants, earrings, rings and bracelets as well as the classic pearl necklaces that have been a symbol of luxury and elegance for centuries.
Truthfully, pearls are at their best when in contact with human skin. Pearls actually get moisture from your skin, so they better preserve their lustre. Remember: wear your pearls as often as you want – they will return the love!
Types of pearls: freshwater and saltwater
Natural pearls are extremely rare finds these days, and their prices are astronomical. Therefore, there are only cultured pearls on the market. Pearls can be divided into two categories: freshwater pearls and saltwater pearls. Freshwater pearls are usually cheaper, as up to twenty pearls can be formed in one mollusk. They are white and usually have less lustre. On the other hand, a sea oyster can only produce up to two pearls at one time. Saltwater pearls are divided into Tahitian, Akoya and South Pacific pearls. In some countries, precious Cortez pearls are also available. Pearls with one flat side, resembling Cabochon-cut jewels, are called Mabe pearls.
The classic, white, symmetrical balls that everyone imagines when thinking about pearls are Akoya pearls. These pearls look stunning in combination with gold of any colour and can also be combined with gemstones for a unique, luxurious look.
The dark green to black pearls with metallic lustre are Tahitian pearls. Tahitian pearls look their best when set off with white gold, which complements them masterfully. Clear diamonds beautifully complement their mysterious lustre, as well.
On the other hand, the honey-toned shades of South Pacific pearls encourage for combining with yellow gold, which creates really luxurious pieces of jewellery.
Large asymmetric pearls, like baroque freshwater pearls, are also popular and stand out best when displayed by themselves on a chain. Each pearl is an original, and you can make sure of that at our atelier.
Taking care of pearls: fragile beauties
The price of pearls depends on their size, shape (symmetry), colour and lustre. In general, the thicker the nacre layer, the better the lustre of the pearl. There might be pearls on the market with only a thin layer of nacre. We can recognize them according to the so-called “blinking” that happens when they are turned. In bad-quality pearls, the colour of the nucleus shines through, so you can see a dark spot on the pearl when turned at a certain angle. Unfortunately, fake pearls can also occur, apart from those with a thin layer of nacre. However, fakes can be easily recognized, because their surface is synthetic and they are perfectly round, a trait which is most easily visible at the pearl’s hole. It is widely said that real pearls should scrub or feel gritty when you rub them against your teeth. However, we don’t consider this to be a sufficient method to determine a pearl’s authenticity.
Pearls are very delicate. So, you have to be more careful when wearing pearls than when wearing gemstone jewellery. We recommend putting on the piece of pearl jewellery as the last step when getting ready. Pearls can be damaged by hairsprays, creams, perfumes and other chemical substances. When you take your pearls off, like before bed, maybe, gently clean them using a damp cloth before putting them in your jewellery box.
Keeping a pearl necklace or bracelet on in the shower, bath, sauna or steam room will definitely damage your pearls. The string holding the pearls together can become fragile in water and can also become slack, so gaps might occur in between the pearls. From then on, it’s not very difficult to rip the strand altogether. These conditions might also not be good for earrings and rings because the pearl might come out of the setting. You should also be mindful of your pearls’ contact with acid or corrosive substances. For example, vinegar, wine or cleaning products might damage the pearl. You should also avoid contact with sharp objects.
When buying a pearl necklace or bracelet, it should always be knotted and fixed (there should be no gaps between the pearls when pulled slightly). Knots between the individual pearls prevent their abrasion, and in case the necklace breaks, the pearls won’t fall off.
What you might not have known about pearls
These days, pearls mainly come from China. However, there are also large farms on the coasts of Japan, Indonesia, Polynesia and Australia. Pearls from these places always have a slightly different colour, depending on the type of mussel or oyster in which they are formed and on the conditions of their farming.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, we didn’t need to go that far from the Czech Republic to get pearls. Back then, the Otava river was so clean that freshwater pearl mussels habitated there, and people could harvest pearls from them. They were so popular that people started breeding mussels in the 18th century in Horažďovice in a local mill ditch. There were around 12 thousand pieces that were brought to the ditch from the Otava during times of drought. The mussels were carefully opened once every five to ten years, and pearl yield was different every time. The individual pieces differed in size as well as quality. The beautiful pearls rivalled saltwater pearls in price. A record from 1867 says that the yield in that year was 130 small pearls and 30 big pearls. However, as the rivers started to get more and more polluted, the mussels gradually disappeared, and the farming was over after the second world war.
So who has had the unique opportunity to wear real, natural pearls? Elizabeth Taylor famously wore a large pearl that dated back to the 16th century. It had been worn by Mary Tudor and had been owned by Spanish, English and French kings. The pearl is drop-shaped and is called La Peregrina, or the Wanderer. Elizabeth Taylor had it inserted into a necklace at Cartier. The necklace was auctioned in 2011 for 11 million US dollars.