Tahiti, 2020

Pearl Primer

The elegance and luster of pearl captivate the eye and the imagination.

It is said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. But I believe that pearls are a woman’s — or a man’s — best treasure. Queen Elizabeth I of England loved pearls so much that she had them sewn into her sheets. Queen Elizabeth II was married in 1947 in a wedding dress decorated with 10,000 seed pearls. World War II had just ended, and the dress was paid for using ration coupons.

It isn’t just women who have fallen under the allure of the pearl. Mexican diver Kino, in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, finds one so grand that he calls it “The Pearl of the World.” The Maharaja of India powerfully wore a series of pearl ropes from the Arabian Sea.

The lavish Edward IV of England possessed a toothpick made of gold, decorated with diamond, ruby, and pearl. King James I of England and VI of Scotland wore a hat pin called “The Mirror of Great Britain” to represent his hope for a United Kingdom, which included massive diamonds and two large pearls.

Pearls are entirely organic in nature and are made of aragonite and conchiolin. The luster that makes pearls beautiful is produced when light is reflected off aragonite and conchiolin. Aragonite and conchiolin are secreted by the animal to surround a foreign body that has entered the pearl. In natural pearls, usually they are secreted to wall off a parasite that has entered the animal through its shell. In the case of cultured pearl, the secreted wall surrounds a bead nucleus that is inserted by hand into the animal.

Many animals produce pearls. Even snails and periwinkles can produce pearls. The three most common saltwater pearls on the market today are “Akoya,” “Tahitian,” and “South Sea.” They come from three different varieties of oyster. Freshwater pearls are also very common and are cultured to grow inside farmed mussels.

Akoya pearls are typically about 7~ to 9~ mm in size and are white, cream, or pinkish in color. They grow inside the pinctata fucata oyster. The first successfully cultured oysters were the Akoya, and the vast majority of them are farmed in Japan, although Korea and Vietnam produce them as well.

Tahitian pearls are normally larger than Akoya pearls, measuring between 8~ and 11~ mm and grow in the pinctata margarifitera oyster. These pearls come in many different hues, from black and silver to blues and greens. Some Tahitian pearls, called “peacock” in the trade, have orient in multiple hues. Grown all across the Pacific Ocean, from Mexico to the Philippines, these pearls are often strung together in mixed colors strands.

The largest commonly worn pearl is the elegant South Sea pearl. Much larger than either the Akoya or the Tahitian pearl, the South Sea pearl comes from the pinctata maxima oyster, which is about the size of a dinner plate! Billowy and luxurious in white or gold, these pearls are the mark of sophistication.

The Intrepid Wendell is a merchant of fine pearls of all types. We would love to share our knowledge of this treasure with you.

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