The ancients called pearls “dewdrops filled with moonlight.” The birthstone for June, they are a traditional gift for brides and treasured by admirers of fine jewelry of every era.
Pearls have been called the queen of gems and the gem of queens. Historically, they were treasured for their rarity, mystical symbolism, and medicinal properties, as well as for their beauty. Today, a string of pearls is considered a jewelry wardrobe basic for fashion-conscious women.
Natural pearls are formed inside a mollusk, usually an oyster, without any human interference or encouragement. An irritant such as a grain of sand can prompt a mollusk to secrete nacre to reduce its discomfort. Perhaps once in 10,000 oysters, the resulting protective coats of nacre eventually produce a pearl.
Finding enough gems of suitable matching size, shape, color and luster to make a necklace may take many years. Thus, jewelry made of matched natural pearls is especially prized. In 1917, the jeweler Jacques Cartier traded a necklace of 128 natural pearls for the six-story Fifth Avenue mansion that is still today Cartier’s New York flagship showroom.
Cultured pearls are also genuine gems, but are formed by intentionally inserting a nucleus, usually a bead made of mussel or clam shell, inside an oyster. This process was perfected in Japan in 1916. So began the industry of commercially cultivated pearls, which dramatically increased the supply and reduced the prices of the gems.
Pearls used in jewelry are far more varied than the classic white spheres. In the 1800s, tiny seed pearls were painstakingly threaded to form lacy adornments for debutantes and brides. Baroque or irregularly shaped pearls are often used to form figural jewelry. Dome-shaped mabe gems and naturally colored gray and black South Sea pearls are also popular with contemporary designers.
Skinner’s Fine Jewelry Department has an illustrious record of selling fine examples of the art and craft of pearl jewelry, including antique, vintage and contemporary examples that display these gems at their most alluring.