Throughout the ages, humans have been enchanted by pearls and the shells of the mollusks that produce them. As ancient trade routes gradually expanded and societies developed across Asia and Europe, pearls became important symbols of wealth, status and religious belief.
With the arrival of natural cultured pearls on the international market in the 1930s, pearls became more available and more affordable than ever before. Although some people initially rejected cultured pearls, a handful of designers, most notably Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, embraced them, using the gems in her elegantly casual designs. By the 1950s, cultured pearls were essential accessories for well-dressed women in the United States and Europe.
Over the last several decades, designers have been inspired by the broad range of colors and sizes of cultured pearls to create both sophisticated pearl jewelry and whimsical pearl-decorated objects. Pearls may be everywhere today, but they are still as glamorous as ever; images of movie stars, first ladies and supermodels wearing pearls only heighten the gems’ popularity. Indeed, we are living in a new Great Age of Pearls.
Any mollusk that produces a shell can produce a pearl. Nevertheless, naturally occurring pearls are rare, found in perhaps one of every 10,000 animals. The cultured pearl industry, which has flourished since the early 20th century, has developed techniques to greatly improve these odds. Indeed, more pearls are produced now than at any time in human history.
With the widest geographical range of all living pearl oysters, the Black-lipped Pearl Oyster, Pinctada margaritifera, is now cultured for pearls in French Polynesia as well as many other areas in the tropical Pacific Ocean.
Commonly known around the world as black pearls, the pearls of Tahiti are indigenous to the remote lagoons of French Polynesia in the South Pacific. Legend has it that the pearl oyster, Te Ufi was offered to man by Oro, the God of Peace and Fertility, who came down to earth on a rainbow. Some say that Oro offered the pearl oyster to the beautiful Princess of Bora Bora as a sign of his eternal love. Another romantic tale tells of how when the full moon bathes the dark ocean with beams of light it attracts the oysters below to the surface shimmering with heavenly dew. In time, the drops of dew polish the black pearl with colorful hues of blue, green, gold and pink. The most famous of black pearls was called “Azra”, the centerpiece of a necklace that was part of the Russian crown jewels.
Cultured Black-lipped Oyster pearls are sold today as Tahitian cultured pearls. Some are ringed or grooved, an unexplained imperfection that can occur in pearl culturing. From the grafting to the harvesting of a black pearl, a period of 3-7 years or more is necessary to achieve the desirable thickness of the outermost layer (called the nacre) around the nucleus.
Black pearls are not necessarily black. More often than not they range from a light to very dark gray. They may also look green, pink, lavender, blue or brown, these the being more rare colors formed by nature. Black pearls can look almost metallic, with the roundest of the pearls being the most valuable and rare. Black pearls also come in unique and asymmetrical shapes, with baroque and circled pearls often making for interesting jewelry pieces.
Pearls are the most feminine and romantic of all gems, and they never go out of style. The versatility of pearl jewelry lets every fashionable woman make her statement, whatever the occasion. Susan picks her pearls with the utmost care, using natural cultured pearls that have natural fancy colors. She looks for the rare and unique pearls that stand out from the rest. Not only in their color, luster, and shape, but also looking for pearls without surface blemishes. This is fitting, since they should reflect the uniqueness and beauty of their future owner.