By Polly Guerin, The Fashion Historian
Genuine pearls are truly nature’s gift from the sea and as such have been valued throughout the ages not only by royalty, but as accessories in important works of art. However, before the 20th century, the hunt for genuine pearls was more or less by chance. Pearl divers dove into the depths of the sea to manually pull oysters from the ocean bottom. It was a laborious and difficult process, and it could take nearly one ton of oysters to produce only three or four perfect round pearls. Pearls were traded as a valuable commodity and people paid astonishing prices for a pearl necklace. Morton Freeman Plant (son of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant) knew the value of a pearl necklace and in 1917 he traded the Plant’s Neo-Renaissance mansion in exchange for $100 in cash and a double-strand natural pearl necklace valued at the time at $1 million dollars. This mansion is the site of the New York branch of Cartier at 653 Fifth Avenue.
BIRTH OF NATURAL PEARLS
Like Venus rising from the sea a natural pearl can take many years to achieve near-perfect condition and for them to grow in size. The birth of a natural pearl begins when an oyster is invaded by a foreign object. An oyster’s natural defense to the intrusion of this small foreign object, lodged in its mantle tissue, (a grain of sand or parasite) is to encase the object in layers of ‘Nacre’ (nay’ker), which forms a smooth, iridescent mother-of-pearl protective coating. It can take from two to five years for a quality pearl to fully develop in the oyster. Many are not perfectly round and their odd shape has given rise to a style called ‘Baroque.”
JAPANESE PEARL DIVERS
CULTURED PEARLS DEBUT
Many legends surround the value of owning pearls as they contain the power of love, money, protection and luck. Ancient legend says that pearls were thought to be the tears of the gods and Greeks believed that wearing pearls would promoted marital bliss and prevent newlywed women from crying. The pearl is the official birthstone for the month of June. It is also the birthstone for the Sun signs of Gemini and Cancer. Freshwater pearls are given on the 1st wedding anniversary and also on the 3rd, 12th and 30th anniversaries. Pearls seem to have a beauty and a versatility all their own. They can be worn with equal ease with daytime business fashions right into evening with a jeweled clasp, and even compliment casual sportswear. Their luminous light compliments most every woman’s complexion and they have that special quality of quiet elegance as personified by celebrities and royals as their signature accessory. ♥
Bio: Polly Guerin taught Product Knowledge at the Fashion Institute of Technology and pearls were a favorite topic. Earlier as an accessories editor, she wrote about cultured pearl jewelry for the venerable trade newspaper, Women’s Wear Daily and also for Art & Antiques magazine. Her tenure as a vice president of RWA/NYC ends in 2009, but she will continue to regale you with fashion history. Visit Polly at www.pollytalk.com.