Friday, December 18, 2009


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.


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.”


In ancient times it was not uncommon for slaves to be anchored with a rock tied around their leg and thrown into the sea to collect precious pearls from oysters. It was a treacherous business. However, traditionally in Japan pearl the process was more civilized and diving was done by women who were called “Ama,” a word which literally meant “sea woman.” This Japanese tradition dates back 2000 years and as recently as the 1960s, Ama divers wore only a loincloth. They are known to have incredible “free-diving” and “breath-hold” skills. Even today, Ama dive without scuba gear, using these free-diving techniques and can descend to depths of over 100 feet on a single breath. Today, a bit of modesty prevails and divers at tourist attractions wear, white, partially transparent suits to dive in. The harvesting of natural pearls continues to be a costly process. The difference between “Natural” and “cultured pearls” is man’s intervention or to put it more simply, by artificial insemination.


If you own a pearl necklace today you are wearing ‘cultured pearls,” a result of pearl farming. Modern-day cultured pearls are primarily the result of discovers made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Japanese researchers. They discovered a specific technique for inducing the creation of a round pearl within the gonad of an oyster. They simply inserted a foreign object into the farmed oysters and waited for their production to increase. The first harvest of rounds was produced in 1916, but the technique was patented by Kokichi Mikimoto in the 1930s. Pearl farmers cultivated large numbers of quality pearls in the Akoya oysters under controlled facilities in the shallow ocean waters of Japan. It takes two to three years for pearls to develop in pearl farming. You could say that cultured pearls were designed from the start to be round and flawless. Most importantly by producing thousands of pearls in farming facilities, it brought their cost down to a point where pearls became accessible to large numbers of women throughout the world. Only an X-ray can tell the difference between a cultured and natural pearl. Pearl variety includes Mabe pearls, Tahitian Black pearls, South Sea pearls, and small Biwa and seed-like Keshi pearls.


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

1 comment:

  1. Polly dear Polly,
    Here you go again. You pick my favorite subjects to talk about. I always loved pearls and when I usually got quite a few pearly gifts.
    I remember dating a gentleman from Spain, and for Christmas he gave me our Favorite Julio Iglasias album and a gorgeous double strand intertwined black and white pearl necklace from China. I still have it. Alone with a diamond and pearl ring another gentleman bought me from Ciros.
    They are elegant, and like the little black Chanel suit, will never go out of style.