Everything you need to know about the happy accidents that are pearls.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
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Everything you need to know about the happy accidents that are pearls.

We’re all familiar with the story: A tiny foreign object finds its way into an oyster, gets stuck, and the mollusc secretes a substance called nacre (which also coats the inner part of the shell) to cover the object and prevent it from damaging the mantle. Since its accidental discovery thousands of years ago by foraging humans, we have become enamoured with what is essentially nature’s prettiest band-aid. Ancient Egyptians were buried with them, the Greeks associated them with love and marriage, knights in the Dark Ages wore them into battle for protection and the Renaissance nobility banned the hoi polloi from wearing them. Even Cleopatra was famously thought to have dissolved a pearl in a glass of vinegar to prove to Mark Antony that she could drink the wealth of an entire nation in one meal. These shimmery orbs have many tales to tell, many of which can be found in a coffee-table book by Mikimoto and luxury book publisher Assouline, titled The Pearl Necklace, that was launched last October.

It’s hard not to associate pearls with the Mikimoto name, as it was founder Kokichi Mikimoto who put cultured pearls in the spotlight back in 1893, when the company cultured the world’s first semi-spherical pearl. A perfectly spherical one followed in 1905. Mikimoto is also closely linked with the Akoya pearls of Japan, known for being classically white and round, but it carries other popular types as well. Tahitian pearls are grown in French Polynesia and famed for their dark colour, while South Sea pearls, which range in colour from white to gold, are the largest saltwater pearls around, growing up to 18mm. Freshwater pearls may not be as lustrous as Akoya ones, but are far more affordable because the mussels they are grown in can produce up to 50 pearls per mollusc.

Unlike precious stones, pearls are harvested from a living organism, and can take anything from 10 months to several years before reaching the desired size. The quality of pearls increases as oysters age, so it’s also in the farmers’ best interests to keep them unharmed. In this sense, Jackie Kennedy’s famous quote rings true in more ways than one: “Pearls are always appropriate.” 

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Because few things in life are black and white.
To appreciate only white pearls is like saying you eat only vanilla ice cream, when there’s a smorgasbord of flavours available. Similarly, pearls come in a rainbow of colours, such as green, purple, gold, pink, chocolate and lavender.
So what gives them their shimmery colourations? Quite a few factors, actually. But it starts with the type of mollusc and the colour of its lip. Black lipped oysters, for instance, will be more likely to produce black pearls, especially if the pearl is formed near its thick black lip as it will suck up the colouring, Factors like water condition, thickness of the nacre layers and luck also play a part.
Pearl farmers are able to adjust the odds somewhat by adding a bit of tissue from a donor oyster into the nucleus that will go into the host oyster. The lip colour of the donor will then affect the resultant colour. And the thicker the nacre is, the richer and more iridescent the colour will be.
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Naturally occurring pearls don’t necessarily form around a grain of sand because the molluscs are capable of spitting such irritants out. It’s when a burrowing parasite gets trapped inside or other bits of debris are unable to be dislodged that nacre and conchiolin (an insoluble protein found in the shell) begin to form around the foreign object. Once abundant in the Persian Gulf, almost all natural pearls have been harvested as demand rose and water conditions became less than ideal thanks to pollution and climate change.
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