Any fashion devotee worth her handbags would remember the line “Put On Your Pearls, Girls” well. It was featured coquettishly by Lulu Guinness across various girly bags she designed a few years back. Born into the Guinness billion-dollar fortune, Lulu Guinness sure knows her pearls.
What is a pearl, actually? Let’s imagine a sea object that accidentally intrudes into a living, shelled mollusk. The mollusk then creates a defensive layer of calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the intruding object, repeatedly over time to eventually crystallize a hard object (often round, but sometimes in irregular shapes called baroque). When the mollusk is pried open, that hard object is known as natural pearl.
A natural pearl is a rare fluke of nature, and have been fashioned into jewelries or adornment pieces for thousands of years by royalties worldwide. Reigning over Egypt around 51-30 BC, then arguably world’s richest kingdom, Cleopatra not only would braid loose pearls into her hairdo, but was said to have dissolved an entire pearl in vinegar to impress the visiting Roman general Mark Anthony.
In 15th – 16th century Spain, then arguably world’s richest empire, sent dozens of armada to discover new lands and secure pearls, precious stones, gold, silver, spices and other valuables. Note that pearl was put on the top of the list, above precious stones and gold. In summer 1498 Christopher Columbus found possibly world’s richest pearl-laden seabeds around Cubagua and Margarita, now part of Venezuela. Native Indians on those islands viewed illuminating objects, like lustrous pearls, as vessels carrying divinity light and hence, in probably one of the most lopsided exchanges recorded in modern history, traded their natural pearls for shinier objects the Spanish fleets brought—glasses and mirrors. O Queen Isabella, how I envy thee.
In 2007 Christie’s recorded USD 6.3 million for an auction of two strands made of 68 matched natural pearls once belonged to Maharaja Baroda in India—the land where royalties are estimated to have adored pearls for 3,500 years, a whole millennium ahead of Cleopatra.
Natural pearls can still be found yet after centuries of being harvested euphorically, are getting even rarer to find. Over 90% of the pearls nowadays are cultured, in which growth is induced by implanting a mantle tissue from a donor shell into a recipient shell, a technique patented by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1916. Pearls can be farmed in seawater and freshwater, and since genetically managed, are almost perfectly round and, as the trend suggests, getting larger.
My love affair with pearls began in the late ‘80s, as my parents relocated to Ambon. Molucca islands, and later I learned Lombok, are homes to Indonesia’s seawater pearls, natural and cultured. On my first visit Mom took me to a street in downtown Ambon lined with pearl stores. As I understood, most of the pearls sold there at the time were still natural. In one visit I even met a seasoned pearl diver, whom the shopkeeper had to speak loudly to as his hearing was impaired from years of deep diving with minimum gear. When several years later Ambon was rocked by sectarian conflict Mom, who’d relocated to another province, got calls from some Ambonese pearl traders fleeing in panic, offering their merchandises.
To me pearls are pretty, pristine, and phenomenally feminine. Gold and diamonds can be arranged to adorn men in a manly fashion, Tweet