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Saltwater Pearl Beads
I remember when I was a little girl, I would make Dad pick me up when we went past the local jewelry store. There I would contentedly gaze upon the jewelry until he got tired and we moved on. My favorite jewelry always had a pearl in it - creamy white with subtle color gradations. I always ordered oysters in restaurants and I remained perennially optimistic that I would find a pearl in my meal! While I no longer look for pearls in my meals, I still look for them in jewelry stores.
Pearls have been mesmerizing people for centuries. No one is sure when pearls were first used for decoration, but there is evidence that goes back as far as 4000 BC. Pearls were probably the first natural stone used as beads because they didn't have to be cut or faceted. They could simply be bored and placed on a string. The history of pearls and beads are, in fact, so interrelated that some cultures based the word for bead on the word for pearl.
Pearls have been prized almost since their discovery. They may have been one of the reasons Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 15 BC. They are used as symbols of purity, beauty and wealth in religious publications such as the Koran, sacred books of India and the Bible.
Perhaps the most famous of all pearl legends involved Cleopatra crushing a pearl into a glass of wine and drinking it. She was showing Marc Antony that Egypt possessed a wealth beyond compare. There are several other pearl legends. Please visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/pearl/time.html or http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/pearls/ to read more about the fascinating history of pearls.
Because very few pearls are naturally produced and many of those pearls are not gem quality, they remained extremely expensive until early in the 20th Century. At that time, a few Japanese citizens perfected a way to produce cultured pearls (shells are injected with the nucleus of the pearl and then left in the salt water to mature). Mikimoto ended up with the patent on the process and enthusiastically marketed these pearls. They were a mere fraction of the cost of naturally produced pearls. Still, there was an uphill battle to get the cultured pearls accepted, but Mikimoto persevered. I personally cannot think of cultured pearls without seeing Coco Chanel draped in them. To this day, Mikimoto pearls are highly prized.
While they cost much less than natural pearls, good quality cultured pearls are not cheap. Therefore, imitation pearls abound. Mallorca, Spain has excellent imitation pearls. The Czech Republic also produces a good quality glass based imitation pearl bead. However, it may be that the best imitator of salt water pearl beads are actually fresh water pearls which we'll discuss in next month's edition of this column.
References and Resources
The Book of the Pearl : Its History, Art, Science and Industry - George Frederick Kunz and Charles Hugh Stevenson
Pearls - Fred Ward
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