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Cultured Pearl

Cultured Pearl

Above: Front of specimen card.


"He had taken from a secret resting-place in his bosom the pearl, the last of his jewels. As he looked at it, a mellower lustre, a soft and iridescent light, full of shifting gleams of azure and rose, trembled upon its surface. It seemed to have absorbed some reflection of the colours of the lost sapphire and ruby. So the profound, secret purpose of a noble life draws into itself the memories of past joy and past sorrow."

~ Henry van Dyke, The Other Wise Man, 1895

The pearl is an iconic treasure. Serving as a symbol of wealth across many cultures throughout history, the pearl is not a gemstone, but rather a completely organic creation formed within the shell of a living mollusk.

When an irritant (sand, parasite, etc) enters the mollusk’s shell, the animal reacts by coating the object with layers of aragonite and calcite. Known as nacre, this material builds up layer after layer creating a hard shell around the object. While this process protects the soft flesh of the mollusk, it also creates a beautiful and unique byproduct we call the pearl.

Above: A closeup of Cultured Pearl specimens.

This specimen is a cultured pearl from a freshwater farm on the Tennessee River. Operated for decades by the same family, the methods they employ are used by modern pearl farms around the world to create a sustainable harvest of one of the world's natural treasures.

The specimen is housed in an acrylic jar that is encased within a glass-topped riker display box. The box measures 4 1/2" x 3 1/2". A small information card is also included, which serves as the certificate of authenticity.

More about Pearls and Pearl Farming

The collection of pearls has a long history, and like any human endeavor, there are intricate traditions and rituals associated with time-tested methods and practices. Each story is a unique chronicle of the connection between humans and the sea, though perhaps the most famous is that of the Haenyeo divers from Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea.

The tradition of diving on Jeju goes back to at least 434 CE, and since the 17th century, the Haenyeo has consisted entirely of women. Divers begin training early, around the age of 11, and their work powers the entire economy of the island. In the past, women would work every day, even when pregnant. In fact, some even gave birth in the boat. While incredibly difficult, the Haenyeo have also achieved economic and social freedom as a result of their partnership with the sea and making them the head of their households.

Natural pearls form around nearly any foreign object. This often results in irregular shapes and sizes, and makes locating the classic, spherical shape quite rare.

Over the past century, a technique for cultivating perfect pearls has been developed. By inserting a round bead into the mollusk, a spherical pearl can be formed and harvested in 18 months. This technique was used and perfected in the beginning of the 20th century by Japanese businessman Mikimoto Kōkichi (1858-1954). Mikimoto’s fascination with pearls began at a young age, and as an adult he became interested in finding a way to develop perfect pearls. The growing price of pearls in foreign markets meant they were being gathered more and more, not only making pearls rarer but endangering the oysters that made them.

With a series of patents, Mikimoto established a powerful presence in the pearl market with his new cultivation techniques. Known as the “Pearl King”, he helped shift the industry towards oyster culturing methods rather than simply searching for wild oysters. Mikimoto saw his method of cultivation as “a successful case of science applied in aid of nature,” as while their creation was started through a scientific process, the pearls themselves were made through natural means.

Today, pearl farms continue to be the main source of pearls on the market, though Japan is no longer the only provider. In the past decades, pearl farms have begun to form in the United States. American pearls come from a freshwater mussel in the midwest and the techniques of each farm are closely protected. These farms are able to produce hundreds of thousands of pearls a year and sometimes use custom-designed inserts to create uniquely shaped pearls, such as coins, teardrops, and triangles.

The United States has historically been a bountiful location for pearl hunters. In the mid 19th century, a discovery of a 26-gram pearl in New Jersey led to a rush around the country, pulling up millions of pearls from New York to Mississippi. This overcollection along with the effects of industrialization destroyed the population of freshwater mussels, causing the American market to disappear until the development of pearl cultivation. The Tennessee River holds most of the mussel farming in the country.

 Above: Back of specimen card.

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