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Here’s Why Pearls No Longer Cost a Fortune

Coming up with ways to lower the price of pearls—either through culturing or by out-right fakery—took centuries

Pearls have been a symbol of extreme wealth for thousands of years. (Pixabay)
smithsonian.com

Pearls have been valued since ancient times. In India, the Roman Empire and Egypt–to name just a few places–pearls were markers of extreme wealth, writes PBS.

Given their natural rarity and the difficulty of obtaining them, people have been trying to make affordable alternatives to these super-luxe items for a long time as well. Take a look at these big moments in the consumer history of pearls:

500 A.D. Chinese farmers make the first cultivated pearls

Pearl farmers in China started to cultivate blister pearls in freshwater Cockscomb mussels. These pearls were small and–thanks to the molds used by the farmers–shaped like tiny Buddhas. These were the world’s first cultured pearls, writes the American Museum of Natural History.

The Gemological Institute of America adds that these early “blister pearls” were flat and hollow, not round like the pearls we think of today. 

1686 A.D. First modern-day imitation pearl made by Jacquin of France

The first modern method of making imitation pearls was patented by Jacquin of France in 1686, according to Marie-Jose and Howard Opper writing in BEADS: Journal of the Society of Bead Researchers. Although there are earlier records of fake pearls being made, they write, this is the first method that we know the details of.

Jacquin discovered that “mixing ammonia with the scales of the bleak, an European freshwater fish, produced a paste that well imitated the luster of pearls,” the Oppers write. “The use of this paste, called essence d’orient, to coat the inside surface of clear-blown glass beads spread rapidly throughout France. The interior was then filled with wax.” This remained a popular method into the 1800s, they write, even though “both the paste and the wax melted in warm temperatures.”

Near the end of the 1600s, several other methods were developed. One involved suspending seed pearls over a boiling solution of vinegar and turpentine, which softened the pearls into paste.  That paste could be sculpted into larger pearls. Another involved powdering seed pearls and then making a paste out of the powder, at one point baking the pearls inside a large freshwater fish. (Why? Your guess is as good as ours.)

1896-1916 Modern pearl culturing is developed by three Japanese men

Around the same time, biologist Tokichi Nishikawa and a carpenter named Tatsuhei Mise both independently figured out the secret of culturing pearls. It involves poking a little nucleus of metal or shell into a particular area of an oyster, causing the tissue to form a pearl sack. “That sack then secretes nacre to coat the nucleus, thus creating a pearl,” writes PBS. The result was a perfectly spherical cultured pearl.

Both Nishikawa and Mise were trying to patent their process at the same time. They agreed to cooperate on a patented method called the Mise-Nishikawa method, which was purchased by another pearl experimenter, Kokichi Mikimoto. Mikimoto had already patented a method for cultivating oblong pearls, and with the Mise-Nishikawa method, he was able to make further discoveries, such as the fact that round pieces made from U.S. mussel shells make the best nuclei for saltwater cultured pearls.   

“Even though third with his patents and his secrets, Mikimoto revolutionized pearling,” writes PBS. “Ever the flamboyant showman and promoter, he badgered jewelers and governments to accept his cultured products as pearls.”

For the first time, an actual pearl was within reach for people other than the super-rich. The company bearing Mikimoto’s name still makes pearls today.

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