There is perhaps no other type of jewelry more synonymous with elegance and beauty than a strand of pearls. These extraordinary glowing spheres add the perfect finishing touch to outfits, and are as appropriate in the office as they are in a fancy restaurant. From humble beginnings, to high fashion, cultured pearls have a fascinating journey.
Although pearls have been prized for thousands of years, the culturing process didn't begin until around the 1800’s. The culturing of “blister pearls” soon replaced the previously popular mother-of-pearl industry.
The perfection of the culturing process, along with the modern pearl market and international trade industry, really only came into its own in the last fifty years, and is credited mostly to the work of Kokichi Mikimoto and his associates. One of the first Post WWII Japanese entrepreneurs to open stores in the United States, Mikimoto built a successful brand with major marketing campaigns and creative sales approaches. Mikimoto is now a world wide recognizable name associated with luxury and romance.
More often than not people assume that the term “cultured” is synonymous with “imitation”, or otherwise implies that the pearl is not a genuine one. In reality, a cultured pearl is no less genuine than one occurring in nature, and typically takes much more time, energy, and resources to produce. The only differences between the two are rarity, and the fact that human intervention began the process of creating the cultured pearl. Other than that, the rest is all taken care of by the mollusks in their natural and normal biological processes.
Comprised of aragonite, a calcium carbonate crystal, pearls come in a range of natural colors and exhibit wonderful luster that makes them appear as if they glow from within. The journey that a tiny cultured pearl must take in order to become that sumptuous strand or set of striking earrings is massive, and requires work from many nations and hands. For instance, depending on the country, some farmers must grow their own stock of mollusks, raise them to maturity, nucleate the animals with tiny mother-of-pearl beads, and wait months, even years to produce enough pearls to make any returns on initial investments.
To understand the process of nucleation, it's helpful to know the basics of how a pearl is formed naturally. When an irritant, such as a parasite, enters the mollusk, a fluid is secreted as a defense mechanism. This fluid coats the irritant, creating a layer called nacre. Each layer of nacre builds up to form the pearl. In the instance of cultured pearls, the irritant is inserted deliberately by a human (nucleation), and is a piece of mother of pearl shell rather than a parasite.
After forming, the cultured pearls are then harvested, cleaned, sorted, and sent to market for either wholesaling or selling directly to manufacturers, trading hands hundreds of times before ending up on a retail sales floor or around your neck. In other words, culturing pearls by no means denotes an inferior product, but are the product of many hundreds of years of trial and error as well the fruits of a global market place, and the simple, but extraordinary creatures that make them.