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Pearls: It’s a Cultural Thing!
by Rose Marion, Wire-Sculpture.com
Today I want to share a few interesting facts about pearls. You see, I’m very interested in Victorian and Edwardian times, and I was reading the other day that it was during this time period that the pearl was "cultured." Just imagine: all the pearls we take for granted today, worn on bridal headpieces, in corsages, and to a nice evening out: all of those would be completely unaffordable were it not for the work of Kokichi Mikimoto, commonly celebrated as the father of the cultured pearl, who produced cultured pearls starting in 1916, right around the start of the First World War. This is how late Edwardian jewelry came to feature so many pearls: it was the start of a new era for pearls, leading up to such a proliferation of pearls that the "50’s housewife" of course had a pearl necklace: the pearl was so common and affordable by that point. Just 50 years prior, pearls were painstakingly collected and matched to form just a single strand worth thousands.
Interestingly, the Japanese Tokichi Nishikawa and Tasuhei Mise both independently developed a method of creating pearls, before Kokichi Mikimoto; inserting a tiny slice of a mollusk into another mollusk’s body, causing a pearl to develop. However, the Nishikawa-Mise discovery was limited to producing mabe pearls, which are hemispherical, or half-round, being flat on the back, and were being used in earrings. Mikimoto knew of the Nishikawa-Mise discovery, but couldn’t use the same method if he was to create his own patent and method. So, he decided to use the method with a slight twist, creating round pearls. As a result, Kokichi Mikimoto was successful enough to buy the rights to the Mise-Niskikawa method and become known for developing the cultured pearl.
(As a matter of note, there is a claim that Nishikawa and Mise’s step-father witnessed pearl cultivation at Thursday Island, Australia. The operation was run by William Saville-Kent, a British expatriate living in Australia. Hence the coincidental, "simultaneous yet independent" discovery of Nishikawa and Mise when they returned to Japan – but, not all believe this version of history.)
Before cultivation, Chinese pearls came largely from freshwater rivers and ponds, and most Japanese pearls came from the saltwater coast. But Asia was not the only source for pearls. The New World had pearls, too. While the English and the French encountered Native Americans wearing pearls, and discovered freshwater pearls in the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee River basins, Spain focused on the Caribbean, Central, and South America, forcing people to dive for pearls.
The United States became known for its freshwater pearls, prized in European collections, and Iowa became the center of an industry producing mother-of-pearl buttons, an era which lasted until WWII, when plastic reinvented the button market.
The United States is still incredibly involved in the pearl market, but not just in its native-grown pearls. Kokichi Mikimoto and other pearl culturing pioneers tested all kinds of materials to nucleate pearls from: gold, silver, glass, lead, and clay, but the best success came from round nuclei cut from US mussel shells. So US mussels have been the nucleus of nearly all cultured saltwater pearls for over 100 years!
Pearls have been used and treasured since at least 2200 BC, which was recorded in the Chinese historical text the Shu King, which recorded tributes sent by small kingdoms to the great king of China; some tributes contained pearls. Ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Middle Eastern kingdoms also prized the pearl, as well as India. Scotland also boasts pearl-producing mollusks, but they are protected by law.
Imitation pearls can be made from mother-of-pearl, coral, or conch shell. Others can be simple glass beads that are coated with a solution containing fish scales. Faux pearls will not have the same bright luster, weight, or smoothness as real pearls. And you may have seen Swarovski pearls: these are faux pearls built on a crystal core and coated with a unique Swarovski finish (which Swarovski declines to elaborate on).
As far as the technical details of creating a pearl, here’s what I discovered. Nearly any living shelled mollusk can produce pearls, but today two main types of mollusks bask in attention for producing the gemstone-quality iridescent nacreous pearls prized for jewelry. These 2 mollusks are freshwater mussels and saltwater pearl oysters.
Pearls form when an irritant enters a mussel or oyster, cannot get out, and so the mollusk coats it with nacre, which is also uses to coat its shell, so it’s not a bother anymore. (Imagine if every time you got an eyelash in your eye, you turned it into a pearl! I would be rich!) Cultured pearls form when pearl "farmers" cut a small slit into the mollusk and place tiny pieces of tissue into the slits.
I hope you enjoyed this look at pearl "culture!" Happy birthday to our June-born readers, and I hope you discovered something you didn’t know about your June birthstone, pearl!
Explore pearl beads for jewelry-making:
|Large Hole Pearls||Various Pearl Strands|
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Sources & further reading
- The Shu King
- Swarovski Pearls
- Pearls: Debunking a Japanese Myth
- The History of Pearls
- The Culture of Freshwater Pearls