History of pearls

 

 

The Culture of Freshwater Pearls

                                                      

Pearl necklaces and pearl earrings can lift a woman's complexion and bring light and radiance to the face helping melt away years off a woman whatever her age.  A matching real pearl necklace whether freshwater or cultured, will enhance the skin and lift it so that it glows and glimmers with luminosity.  Combinations of pearl necklaces and earrings come in and out of fashion with regularity so pearls are a must in any fashion wardrobe.
 
Many pearls are now bought from China since trade opened up in the nineties.  The price of pearls has dropped by about a fifth in the past 10 years since the 1990s and the Chinese are making waves in the pearl world with their cheaper prices.  The Japanese have suffered disease in their pearl beds as well as facing competition and are finding it hard to compete with China's prices. 
 
Until 100 years ago flawless, round, natural, large white pearls were prized more than precious gemstones. The finest of pearls then came from the Persian Gulf and South India.  For everyone but the richest people of a nation, fake pearls were the only alternative as the cost was so high for a string of real pearls.   Fine south sea pearls still command a high price, but the rarity value of real pearls was so great in the early 1900s that an early American skyscraper once exchanged hands for the price of a pearl necklace. 
 
In the 1890s Kokichi Mikimoto of Japan began production of highly desirable cultured pearls by placing a small bead into an oyster shell.  The bead coated itself with nacre (mother of pearl) and so good-looking pearl jewels became more affordable.  Similar methods of cultivation are used extensively today in the far east where starter beads of varying shapes are used in mussel shells and other shells and the resultant nacre coated beads become known as freshwater pearls.  Since China opened its doors to the western marketplace the price of freshwater pearls has dropped.
 
It is a great irony of pearl history that the least expensive cultured pearl product in the market today rivals the quality of the most expensive natural pearls ever found. The price-value anomaly is obvious to consumers as they hasten to buy Chinese freshwater bargains. Indeed, pearls from freshwater mussels lie at the centre of the liveliest activity in pearling today.
 
Natural freshwater pearls occur in mussels for the same reason that saltwater pearls occur in oysters. Foreign material, usually a sharp object or parasite, enters a mussel and cannot be expelled. To reduce irritation, the mollusk coats the intruder with the same secretion it uses for shell-building, nacre. To culture freshwater mussels, workers slightly open their shells, cut small slits into the mantle tissue inside both shells, and insert small pieces of live mantle tissue from another mussel into those slits. In freshwater mussels that insertion alone is sufficient to start nacre production. Most cultured freshwater pearls are composed entirely of nacre, just like their natural freshwater and natural saltwater counterparts.
 

The Chinese were the first to culture a product from freshwater mussels, though their centuries-old Buddhas are not true pearls; they are shell mabes. The first cultured freshwater pearls originated in Japan. Quite soon after their initial success with cultured saltwater pearls, Japanese pearl farmers experimented with freshwater mussels in Lake Biwa, a large lake near Kyoto. Initial commercial freshwater pearl crops appeared in the 1930s. The all-nacre Biwa pearls formed in colours unseen in saltwater pearls. Almost instantly appealing, their lustre and luminescent depth rivalled naturals because they, too, were pearls throughout.
 
Even though World War II interrupted the flow of Lake Biwa pearls, by the 1950s replica watches strands sold in Japan as less expensive, colourful alternatives to the mainstay material, cultured saltwater pearls. Biwas' success and publicity were so effective that until a few years ago, all freshwater pearls were routinely referred to as "Biwas," no matter their origin or that such references are illegal in the U.S. unless the pearls are actually from Biwa.
 
As Biwa production diminished, China filled the vacuum. China has all the resources that Japan lacks: a huge land mass; countless available lakes, rivers, and irrigation ditches; a limitless and pliable work force that earns less than a dollar a day; and an almost desperate need for hard currency. In 1968 China startled the gem world with prodigious amounts of inexpensive pearls.
 
By the 1990s, China was supplying the market with products that revolutionised pearling. The shapes, lustre, and colours of the new Chinese production often match original Biwa quality and sometime even surpass it; certainly the new orange and peach-coloured pearls are unique. As testimony to China's achievement, their freshwater pearls are round enough and good enough to pass as Japanese Akoya. China already sells round white pearls up to 7mm for perhaps a tenth the price of Japanese cultured saltwater pearls.
 
Bleaching, dying, and polishing do occur. Except for the old Arabic practice of sun-bleaching in the Persian Gulf, naturals were practically never processed. Chinese pearls that are nearly white or mottled are usually bleached to make them whiter and more uniform. With the same methods perfected by the Japanese, the Chinese use a mild bleach, bright fluorescent lights, and heat. They polish surfaces by tumbling pearls in pumice or similar substances. The idea, as always, is to facilitate matching pearls for strands. Early Chinese pearls used to be dyed to bright red, blue, lavender, yellow or even black. In response to contemporary preferences, but they now offer a selection of subtle natural colours.
 
The Chinese have also begun to nucleate some of their freshwater mussels with shell nuclei implants in both the creatures' bodies as well as in their mantles. Such practices, once perceived as "saltwater culturing techniques," are a new cultural revolution.
 
The Chinese are also nucleating mussels with their own tissue-cultured freshwater pearls, which result in all-nacre round or almost round pearls. Aiming for an even higher percentage of rounds, the Chinese are even reshaping reject freshwater pearls into spheres, then nucleating mussels with them.
 
When combined, those two nucleation innovations are astounding developments. Once again the Chinese have radically altered freshwater culturing, making saltwater and freshwater techniques virtually indistinguishable.


Drawn from articles by  Fred Ward of NOVA and Pauline Weston Thomas  of Fashion-Era.com