Since ancient times the pearl has been the symbol of unblemished perfection. It is the oldest known gem and for centuries considered the most valuable. The Latin word for pearl literally means unique attesting to the fact that no two pearls are identical. To the ancients, pearls were a symbol of the moon and were believed to have magical powers. An old Arab legend tells us that pearls were formed when dew drops filled with moonlight fell into the ocean and were swallowed by oysters. Some believe the first people to collect or wear pearls were an ancient fish-eating tribe, likely from somewhere along the coast of India, who may have discovered pearls while opening their oysters for food.
Natural pearls were once one of the most valuable natural objects on earth, so sought after and expensive that Julius Caesar barred women below a certain rank from even wearing them. The value of a pearl necklace was considered higher than any other piece of jewelry in the world. In fact, they were almost exclusively kept for the highest nobles, royalty and the extremely wealthy. At the peak of the Roman Empire, when the desire for pearls reached its height, the Roman general Vitellius sold one of his mother’s pearl earrings and was able to use the money to finance an entire military campaign. Fortunately, he won the battle.
However, by the early 1900’s pearls finally began to come within reach of the larger pearl-loving community. Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker, worked to develop a strategy that enticed oysters to produce pearls on demand. It was this discovery that brought about the beginning of oyster farming and cultured pearls. Mikimoto’s efforts were directly responsible for the development of the cultured Akoya pearls.
Pearl culturing is the process of creating an environment that encourages natural oysters to yield pearls. The pearl culturing technique itself consists of implanting a piece of an oyster’s mantle tissue into the silky wall lining of another oyster. The oyster’s reaction to this implanted tissue is to soothe the irritant by releasing a milky substance known as nacre. Layer upon layer, after several years, the nacre becomes a beautiful pearl.
Although there are over 100,000 species of oyster, only a very small number of oysters are actually capable of developing a pearl. The most famous and treasured of all cultured pearls is the Akoya pearl, otherwise known as saltwater pearls. Originally native to Japan, they are among the most beautiful and expensive due to their perfect roundness, beautiful color as well as the extreme difficulty associated with the culturing process.