Antiques: Nature's gem

PUBLISHED: 17:26 14 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:11 20 February 2013

Antiques: Nature's gem

Antiques: Nature's gem

It is often said that the pearl is "the queen of gems, and the gem of queens"

Natures gem

It isoften said that the pearl is "the queen of gems, and the gem of queens". This was highlighted to me at one of our recent auctions when a pearl that we offered, measuring only 20mm long by 11mm wide at its widest point, sold for 30,000.

Nowadays, it is very unusual for a pearl to reach such staggering sums in the open market, but it isnt every day that we get to hold a natural pearl. The 20th century has seen a revolution in the pearl industry. The development of the culturing process in the early 20th century meant that pearls are now relatively cheap and accessible to all of us.

However, before the culturing process became so widespread, pearls belonged strictly to the upper echelons of society. A symbol of wealth, power and elegance for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, these accidents of nature are, arguably, the most important gem materials next to diamond. Until recently, they were even more valuable. At the height of the Roman Empire, when pearl fever reached its peak, the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mothers pearl earrings.

The soft contours and dewy white colouration of pearls have long been used as a metaphor for purity, advocated by Queen Elizabeth I who adopted them as an indispensible prop in her highly orchestrated image where earthly wealth met the ethereal purity of the Virgin Queen. Unlike other gemstones, they are worn in their natural state: they need no fashioning, cutting or polishing to reveal their beauty, they are ready to wear. Despite their associations with purity, pearls are actually a fortuitous by-product of the natural defence system of saltwater and freshwater molluscs.

As the humble mollusc feeds, it siphons through the inside of its shell a constant flow of water, along with sand, parasites and other particles that are accidentally drawn into it. The molluscs sturdy outer shell reveals a very delicate interior and it is very vulnerable to harmful invaders that enter the shell during this filtration. When a foreign object such as a small piece of shell, enters the mollusc and cannot be expelled the mollusc immediately begins to protect itself and starts sealing the intruder in a cocoon of a substance called conchiolin, as a spider would with a fly caught in its web.

This conchiolin triggers the shell to produce a substance called nacre, a pale, crystalline substance similar to mother of pearl, the aggravated mollusc continues to coat the intruder with layer upon layer of nacre for a long period, sometimes hundreds of years. The longer the mollusc is left to grow the pearl, the larger and more desirable, it becomes.

When pearls are made through this spontaneous process they are known as natural pearls and are extremely rare. The demand for pearls has long exceeded the supply from natural sources. Over-fishing, pollution and industrialisation have long destroyed many of the pearl seedbeds, which were once so plentiful. As a result, the development of the culturing process in the early 20th century, a technique developed by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan, meant that pearls could be grown to order and became available to virtually everyone in the world, rather than just the privileged few.

Cultured pearls are relatively common in todays market but natural pearls are not, which would explain why the pearl that we sold in March made such an astonishing price. It certainly made me realise just how enduring our love of pearls still is. Even in our modern age, when simulated and imitation examples have flooded the market, there is nothing like the real thing.

Christina Trevanion, head of the jewellery department at Halls, Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury, can be contacted on 01743 284777.

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