This is about pearls with odd shapes. It is Part IV of a series on pearls (See previous blog posts on pearls).
#5702 Mikimoto necklace. Not all pearls are beautifully round like this.
Kokichi Mikimoto is credited with 'inventing' the cultured pearl. Actually, that is not true. The Chinese were interfering with Mother Nature from as early as the 13th century. Other pearl enthusiasts made discoveries and inventions that contributed to the eventual industry of cultured pearls. However, it was the master businessman, Mikimoto who took the final steps in creating the cultured pearl industry as we know it today. He was instrumental in producing spherical pearls and in the mammoth marketing system that made cultured pearls a household luxury.
Let's step back and look at some of the achievements before this accomplishment:
As long ago as the Ancient Egyptian and Roman civilisations, natural pearls were known. While these people did not attempt culturing them, they did practice an amazing array of weird and wonderful 'tricks' to try to improve the appearance of natural pearls.
One of the most fascinating of these practices was to feed the pearl to a chicken. A few hours after the pearl had gone partially down the animal's gullet, the chicken was killed and the pearl removed in the belief that it now had enhanced luster. There were myriads of concoctions devised for soaking pearls in an attempt to improve the luster and appearance of natural pearls.
#5231 Pendant with baroque pearls.
Round about 700 years ago, the Chinese began what was the first attempt to produce cultured pearls ie human intervention in the process whereby mollusks produce pearls. They slipped small piece of shell, mud, sand or even lead figures of the Buddha under the shell of a mollusk. The little animal would cover it in nacre. Nacre, of course, is the substance that constitutes a pearl (that shiny iridescent substance).
The resultant pearls produced from that time until the 20th century are called blister pearls. These are small pearls, often with odd shapes, produced in the fashion described above. Initially, Mikimoto's pearl-culturing attempts resulted in blister pearls. After his first attempts in the 1890's until about 1915 when he reached the ultimate accomplishment was a long road of trial and error for Mr. Mikimoto. That he saw it as a big deal is reflected in the fact that he took a few of these to present to the Emperor of Japan and clearly you didn't bring anything less than the best to that 'god'.
#6080 200 Year Old Pearl Earrings.
While we don't show the same awe towards blister pearls as our ancestors did, there is one kind of blister pearl that is still in high demand today. This is the Mabe pearl. A Mabe pearl, often called a 'half pearl' is produced when a half bead is inserted directly under the shell of a mollusk. Once the nacre has formed around the bead, the bead (often made of plastic) is removed and the space that it took up is filled. The bottom is fitted with a mother of pearl disk to hold it all together.
Mabe pearls are often very large, can be any shape and are very popular in jewelry to this day.
Odd-shaped pearls have been popular in jewelry for thousands of years. During the Renaissance era, it was precisely these peculiar forms that attracted craftsmen. Inspired by the unique shape of a pearl, they would create a whole creature from it, incorporating the pearl as a central feature of the clown, dog, elephant or mermaid. These creations were so imaginative and artistic, that there was a huge revival of neo-Renaissance jewelry emulating them during the 19th century. Later the Austro-Hungarians used smaller baroque shaped pearls in their imaginative jewelry, which echoed that of the Renaissance, but on a smaller scale. You can still buy this marvellous early 20th century jewelry at relatively low prices because most of it was done in silver.
Sometimes, mollusks confound us. It is common to nucleate them with as many as 5 little beads, in the hope of producing 5 individual cultured pearls. However, sometimes the mollusk produces one pearl sac to envelope all of the beads, thus producing twin or triplet pearls. These are an oddity and not very common. They can of course be incorporated in imaginative jewelry designs.
After Mikimoto accomplished the production of spherical pearls around 1915, the gold standard for a cultured pearl was round.
Of course, most pearls are not perfectly round, but that was the aspiration. A lot has happened since then, including the introduction of new kinds of pearls and a lot more variety and science into the industry. While perfectly round pearls are still 'the bar', there is a growing taste for baroque shaped pearls, in particular the dark-colored Tahitian pearls.
Luckily, we humans don't stay the same forever.
#5561 Earrings with grey blister pearls.
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