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gemchugThis is the only precious stone that is created by a living organism. Pearls have always had the reputation of being a big rarity, and its birth is surrounded by mystery. Pliny, the Roman historian, thought it was born from the morning dew. The Chinese believed the pearls are nothing but the dragons’ spit. In fact, pearl is pure and simple calcium carbonate CaCO3 (chalk), where the bound particles of water are allocated. So there is no secret after all, though it is difficult to believe that this nacreous wonder is ever born without any divine intervention! No wonder, then, that people were so excited when Mikimoto Kokichi of Japan adopted this technique for production of cultured pearls in 1896. Unfortunately, now Mikimoto’s company is no more, and its honorable name is bought as a brand by some bank consortium.

The terminology that is used for pearls was created by the Japanese. Though pearls are grown in other countries, its weight is still measured in moms (3.75 g). At auctions, pearls are purchased in yens, and a lot for sale is called hamaj (from Japanese hama – a girl). Nowadays, the price of one hamaj is about 15,000 yen per mom. The auctions take place annually in June and August.

Most saltwater pearls for the international market are grown in Australia, Indonesia, Tahiti, and Myanmar. Pearls from the Southern seas are the best, as they are born in the clearest waters of the most beautiful ocean on Earth, far from navigable waterways.

Pearl production is quite expensive and requires a lot of professionalism, experience, and special skills. It is very important to follow the technological rules, taking into account all natural risks, as well as other kinds of dangers that pearl divers might encounter with other creatures in the sea. The divers have their set of strange and sometimes sinister rituals. Do you know how they breed pearls in Borneo? Pearls are put in a bottle, mixed with rice, and the bottle is corked by, of all things, a dead man's finger. Yes, you read that correctly; a real finger cut off a real dead guy by some real tomb raiders. (The government is currently trying to do something about this morbid tradition.)

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The first step in pearl production is harvesting the oysters known as “pintada.” This oyster may reach some 40 cm in size and lives only in the purest oceanic water with a certain amount of salt. It is also very picky about the temperature. Its only source of food is plankton, which it filters from water. Pintada is caught by professional divers near the Australian coastline that is filled with sharks. The authorities of this country set a strict quota on catching this shellfish: up to 50,000 pieces per year. This oyster, unlike its relatives, is not edible.

Then, a small particle of another shell of about 7 mm diameter is introduced in the oyster, and it is believed the river shellfish specially cultivated for this purpose in the Mississippi are the best. This small particle is what will then become a beautiful pearl. For two long years, the pintada will be covering it, layer after layer, with a nacreous film. It would be lucky if these layers are uniform, but most often it is the other way round. For the oyster, it is a natural reaction to an extraneous body. The job of introducing the particle is done only by true professionals as even the slightest mistake might lead to the oyster's or the pearl’s loss.

As soon as the operation is finished, the oyster is placed into a special grid together with other oysters and is hung in the native environment. Every week, the grids are taken out in order to clean and turn the shells. It is very important to keep the oysters clean and healthy, just like cattle on the pasture. If the Mother Oyster is ill, all kids will also get sick.

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The five major characteristics influencing the quality of pearl are size, shape, color, luster, and clarity of the surface. In the cold currents, an oyster gets lazy and works slower, but if the water is too warm, the possibility of receiving a truly round pearl is considerably lower. The fewer plankton the current bring, the weaker the oyster, and the poorer the end result. All these factors influence the growth of pearls and determinestheir quality. Just like people, pearls may resemble each other, but they will never be exactly the same.

The shape of pearls is quite diverse, and is classified as following:

  • round
  • semi-round
  • drop
  • button
  • baroque
  • circle

Each group has its own characteristics and a particular approach to the quality evaluation. The rarest pearls are round. Sphere is a perfect form, and perfection is a great rarity. People adore round pearls, and, yes, round pearls are used in jewelry most of all. Pearl is a living substance, so all the life principles apply here, too; as a rule for a hamaj (a lot of 100 pieces), there are only one or two ideally round pearls.

It should be noted that of all hamaj, only five percent of pearls reach 18 cm in diameter. Generally, the size of pearls varies from 8 to 24 mm. However, the diversity of forms is to say the least surprising; I have happened to see bird-shaped pearls, human face-shaped pearls, fireball-shaped pearls, and attacking cobra-shaped pearls. Thus, with so many different shapes and sizes and so few really perfect pearls, a quite natural question arises: why not leave the oysters in the ocean for some half a year more to put on weight, so to speak? But as life has shown, the two-year cycle is optimal considering the effectiveness and prime cost of the final product. The factors to be taken into account are the labor cost, the shellfish lifecycle, weather risks, and, finally, the requirements of the market.

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Now some words about the color. To draw any system here is quite a delicate and somewhat conventional task. Only the specialists who have been around the block, so to speak, are able to distinguish the hues and the subtleties. The color of a pearl always matches the color of its bed;  i.e. its mother shell. Three types of oysters are recognized: white, yellow, and black. White pearl comes mainly from Australia, where 80 per cent of the pearls harvested have this color, and black pearls come from Tahiti. Indonesia and Malaysia together produce 70 percent of yellow and 30 percent of white pearls. But nothing is easy. The major problem is that even within one color category, a pearl may have different shades.

For example, pearls of yellow (golden) color have such shades as dark yellow, medium yellow and Champagne yellow. White pearls have four shades: silver, cr?me, pink, and perfect white. There is also a classification according to bloom (patina): greenish, pinkish, yellowish, etc. As for the so-called black pearl from Tahiti, we would better leave it alone: there you will see all colors of the rainbow, all divided into different shades and blooms.

Another important characteristic is luster. Freshwater pearls are popular, but they are not valued very highly because of its lack of luster. Saltwater pearls stand out in comparison to its freshwater relative due to its wonderful luster. This luster is always present; it gets glossy in the sun, glittery in the nightfall, and it looks the best in the shimmer of electric lights, such as in the lobby of a theatre or a nightclub.

One more factor influencing pearl’s price is the amount of surface flaws. As anything created by the nature, the pearl is not perfect. On the surface of a pearl, one will always notice slight lines, traces of curves, small holes, and cavities. It is extremely difficult to find a round pearl that is perfect in color, size, luster, and surface flawlessness. If you are shown an ideal-shaped pearl, be aware that it is most probably fake. Any real pear should grow in an oyster. It does not matter where it actually lives, on the farm or in the wild; the main thing is to have it grow in salt water without any mineral extra nutrition. Any deviations from these rules are easily spotted by the laboratories, and such pearl is considered artificial, and as you remember, artificial gems cost tenfold, even a hundredfold cheaper than their natural counterparts.

As for the shape, another valued variety is the pear shape, as it is ideally suited for earrings. There is also fancy-shaped pearl (baroque), which in some cases is valued highly, too. If the shape of a pearl needs slight enhancement, it is possible to polish it a bit.

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If a natural 9-mm pearl costs about $10, then it is safe to say a growth to 1 mm in diameter--to 11 mm – would double the price; from 12 to 17 mm, it would increase to 30 per cent for each mm. Then the price doubles again, and within 18-19 mm range, it triples from the latter price. Larger examples are unique as is their price. Nowadays, the price of white and yellow (golden) pearl is about the same, while black pearl is twice as cheap, with one exception: starting from 17 mm, black pearl is more expensive than white because this size is very hard to find on the market.

Recently, I visited my G?belin colleagues in Luzerne. They were testing pearls with the most ordinary X-ray unit. Dr. Dietmar Schwarz explained that now all the serious laboratories x-ray pearls. I visited on the day when they had to issue a certificate for pearl jewelry given by Napoleon to his wife Josephine. At that time, the technique of cultivated pearl was unknown, so all pearl was hunted by the divers.

Today, pearl is gathered with the help of this old technique that values just as highly as it was back then. I do not know how much those “Josephine pearls” cost, but a necklace of 28 large pearls grown by wild oysters and hunted by the divers was recently been put on auction at Sotheby's with a starting price of $2,000,000. Separate large pearls are also expensive. For example, a brooch with an 18-mm pearl is offered for $600,000; earrings featuring two similar beauties are priced at $500,000.

A popular legend tells us that pearl must touch human skin; otherwise it loses its luster and dies. In fact, pearl is made of quite robust material and it is quite difficult to break it, unless you put it in the acid or under bright sunlight, as this gem cannot stand ultraviolet light. Pearls owe their luster to water captured by chalk. But chalk holds it so tightthat  the poor thing has nowhere to escape.

But one should always remember; pearls do not live long. Usually a pearl dies around 100 years old. Being preserved in some ideal conditions, it could last 200 or even 300 years, but no longer. That is why we will never have the chance to admire the great pearls of the old times, like the one given by Antony to Cleopatra.