This past weekend I attended the Northwest Jewelry Conference in Seattle and was so pleased with a few of the topics at the show. There were 3 lectures that stuck with me in particular and worked well with one another. The thread that wove these three topics together for me was Surface. The surface of things is one of the languages that lets people know the speciality and importance of an object d’art, painting, whatever, and the surfaces give tribute to the process that it was made by, either by nature or by man. Over the following week I am going to write about both the technical and the historical aspects of jewelry and the jewelry making process. The first being what follows, a small investigation into exotic natural pearls.
Exotic Natural Pearls
Nature has an amazing way of making beautiful objects without any intention of it. It happens everywhere around the world, and in a plethora of formats, sometimes even as a tumorous agent! This is the case with pearls. Pearls are the byproduct of a mollusk being infected by a parasite entering the body of any given mollusk’s tissue, then not being evacuated by the mollusk, and remain in the tissue like a tumor or cyst. In time the mollusk grows, making a larger shell for itself by organizing calcium carbonate, and a small amount of proteins that keep the shell attached to the mollusk’s body. As the shell grows, so too do any deposits that are made around the parasite that serves as the nucleus to the pearl. The process is very similar to what happens in mammals with kidney stones and calcium deposits. It is rare to find a pearl in any given mollusk, only 1 in 10,000 mollusks make a pearl worth any value to the jewelry industry. Imagine the magic of ancient man, boiling or dehydrating the meat of a mollusk to be eaten, only to come across the magical bead of a natural pearl found inside. These animals have served as inspiration to man since their discovery. So what are these alchemist creatures that we call mollusks? What differentiates them from one another and the pearls that they produce?
Mollusks are a type of invertebrate, found in both fresh and salt waters, and consist of approximately 85,000 species! Mollusks derive their name through French mollusque which originated from the Latin word mollis, meaning soft and the study of mollusks is known as malacology. Mollusks consist of 3 main groupings:
-Cephalopods include squid, octopus and cuttlefish. These animals are considered mollusks by their taxonomy, however they are much more intelligent behaviorally and are very neurologically advanced. These animals do not calcify pearls, but rather only specialized bones, and beaks.
-Gastropods make up over 80% of the mollusks and include freshwater snails, sea snails, sea slugs, limpets, land snails and slugs. They can make rather complex shells and some species make the rarest pearls in the world.
-Bivalvia make up the remaining mollusks. These mollusks are the most common foods to humans and consist of familiar groups such as oysters, mussels, clams, cockles and scallops. They have 2 shells referred to as values that mirror one another and are attached at a single sinew consisting of a protein that allows the nervous system of the animal to open and close for the purpose of filter feeding. Unlike gastropods and cephalopods, most bivalves do not move or swim, with the exception of scallops and Limidae.
The exotic pearl producers are the only mollusks that I am going to focus on, however the entire genus is a fascinating group of animals, with abilities not seen anywhere else in nature, from glowing in pattern, to changing color and some being able to swarm or individually attacking whale and other giant animals in the deep seas, and worth knowing more about if you enjoy educating yourself on biological marvels.
North American Pearls
The fresh water of North American rivers are home to several species of mollusks, most common being the Unio, which includes 300 species of its own. These mussels create small to large, baroque pearls in irregular shapes, that have a mirrored and brilliant luster to them. They can range from cream whites, to light grey, or from purple-browns or golden-pinks.
When the Spanish first discovered north America, the Native American tribes of the eastern coastal regions used shells of the Quahog clam as a form of currency between each other. The pearls did not have as much significance to the indigenous peoples as it did to the Europeans and the Spanish exploited that fact, and exported hundreds of thousands of pearls back to Europe in “trade” for very little, except disease and displacement. In Europe aristocrats paid high dollar for their court’s jewelers to string them, and use them in elaborate pieces of jewelry. In fact, the demise of ships from the Spaniard fleet of the late 1490s was due to a misunderstand of the sea during a hurricane near modern-day Haiti, which happened while Columbus was exporting a massive cache of pearls from all over North America to Europe. Many of these caches are still lost to the sea, and the only remnant of the Santa Maria that has been verified was an anchor to the ship, but a few parcels of pearls have been found near the Florida Keys, one in a lead casket containing thousands of natural pearls that have not yet entered any market, and will hopefully be kept together and placed in a museum for posterity sake.
Quahog pearls, (Mercenaria mercenaria,) are nearly all pearls, mimicking the coloration of the clams that produce them. In their instance the colors range from a deep purple, lilac to a brilliant white and most of the time have some sort of banding of these colors. Quahog pearls have a luster to their nacre that is porcelaneous, shiny and reflective and come in smooth symmetrical, bouton, and baroque shapes, most commonly being symmetrical or baroque.
Abalone pearls are an orient-rainbow iridescent pearl, with an opalescent effect to its surface and mirroring to its luster. These pearls come from the abalone (Haliotis) species of salt water snails and are found not only on the west coast of North America, but also in New Zealand. Their pearls range in size, and are typically more of a horn, or baroque shape. Their shells are often times used as mother of pearl in jewelry and in fine inlay work due to the color range within their iridescence. Abalone snails are farmed extensively in China, Japan, and Chile, and it is a popular food source in many parts of the world. Historically, the snail’s tissue was a common dehydrated food source for Native Americans and the shell was also used as an ashtray for the burning of incense. The popularity of Abalone in the late 19th century led to over-consumption and in 1900 laws were passed in California, agreeing that the Chinese and Japanese fishermen would not take any Abalone north of the intertidal zone.
Baja pearls come from the Baja bivalvia (Pteria sterna) and are found from the Sea of Cortez as well as the northern coast of South America. Baja pearls are like the smooth, and more regular little sibling to that of the abalone pearl. They range from a grey-purple to a dark black-purple with a rainbow orient-mirroring effect. These pearls are typically baroque shaped with lips and folds that are a reminded of the lip to their shell, which is the base that holds them on to rocks and coral in nature, and is more exaggerated than most mollusks.
Conch pearls come from the Conch snail (Strobus gigs,) which is a historically a food crop and makes large large pink pearls that range is shades of light pink to deep coral and rose-colored pears. These pearls are some of the rarest in the world, and unlike many of the mollusks that have been manipulated by man to farm the mollusk to get cultured pearls, the Conch organism will bleed out if impregnated with a bead or nucleus more than not. These pearls can have a dramatic fire effect under the luster of the nacre, and can be banded, smooth, solid, baroque and very rarely a rose-bud. These pearls can bring prices shockingly high, depending on their specific attributes and rarity.
Scallop pearls most commonly come from Lion’s paw Scallops (Nodipecten subnodosus,) along the western coast of central America. These pearls are symmetrical, irregular, and baroque in shape and come in an unusual maroon and white spotted and banded colors with surfaces that are porcelaneous and could easily be confused with a ceramic or glass of some sort. Lion’s paw Scallops tend to be a heavier scallop, and therefore do not swim as often as smaller species of scallops. Scallops that do swim, (I highly recommend YouTubing it if you haven’t seen one swim) tend to expel parasites and therefore do not have a nucleus to a pearl in their shell.
Spiny pearls come from the Spiney shell oysters (Spondylus princeps) and have gained popularity over the past decade. They occur in the Sea of Cortez, as well as along the coast of modern day Peru. The shell of this species is, as the name implies, is a spiny surface with many sharpe edges gutting from it’s surface that grow along with each ridge. It is no surprise that the surface of the pearl from this mollusk also has a strange surface, appearing faceted, yet round, with flat areas, much like the a golf ball’s surface.
Giant Clam pearls, from the Giant Clam (Tridacna gigas) are mostly found in the waters around the Philippines. Their coloration is a stark white with brilliant grey that read like that of some enameled metals. These giant creatures can grow to be as large as 6 feet across, and make pearls that are typically more symmetrical than other exotic species when small, but since they grow so large through time, the nacre becomes bulbous and globulous in their baroque shapes. They are also found throughout the Indian Ocean as well as the rest of the South Pacific and are used in both jewelry, but also collected for specimen decor and carving.
Melo pearls come from the Melo Melo snail (several volute) which is a large smooth conch-like shell that is found from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and the northern coasts of Australia. Like the pearl, the Melo Melo snail is beautiful! Their strange snail bodies are not what you might think of when you hear the word snail, but rather it is a meaty, muscular, alien-like creature with zebra stripes of dark brown and white. The pearls likewise are not what you think of when you hear the word pearl; they come in oranges, honeys, beige and light browns and have a luminescent, porcelaneous sheen to their luster with a lot of evenly distributed fire to it. Their shape attributes, much like Cassis pearls are spherical-oval and baroque and are often times confused with the Cassis pearls with the exception most often being the intensity of orange warmth to their color. Melo pearls can bring a shockingly high price per karat, sometimes as high as $9,000 dollars per carat! In some instances the level of rarity is so high! A particularly large specimen went to auction at Christie’s in 2010, and sold for a whopping $722,500.00 USD!
These are only a few of the types of pearls that have great interest in the world. With culturing operations starting to revitalize the Red and Arabian Seas we might soon be looking back towards the lovely lustrous Oriental Pearls that were once ever so popular in the mid-east. Many of those pearls were the most expensive and rarest of perfect natural pearls in the history of the industry.
The culture of natural pearls and the environment are topics that go hand in hand. With over-harvesting, pollution, and rising water temperatures/climate change in mind, the future of the pearl industry is a vague, but an important topic. Not only do these topics effect all of the people within the industry, but it also serves as an indicator of the health and wellbeing of the seas, oceans and waterways of the natural world. It is important, when collecting luxury items like these rare pearls, for consumers to keep in mind that the existing jewels on the market today support the jewelry industry, and not an industry that does not use the meat of these animals or the entire animal. There are many sad stories of mounds and mounds of over-harvested shells, specifically in search of pearls, being thrown back into the seas with no profit and only dead animals. Please consume cultured pearls from reputable dealers or pearls that are second hand from antique jewelers.
-Zach Burk, August 2017