THE BEAUTY OF DIVERSITY
A struggle between life and death
The famous grain of sand is not enough. For a mollusc to create a natural pearl, it must face an existential threat – invasive parasites, a serious flesh injury, a cyst, or a virus, for example. In this way, the beauty of a natural pearl is born out of a struggle between life and death.
The pearl is the victor’s reward.
Born out of danger
Pearls were known as “the tears of the gods”, until the Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto invented and perfected pearl cultivation around 1900. Today, cultured pearls are industrial products.
Natural pearls, on the other hand, remain unique and unmistakeable, born out of danger – to the mollusc and to the divers who search for them, in all of the world's seas and cultures, and throughout the ages.
Mother nature’s works of art
Mother-of-pearl consists of calcium carbonate, a variety of organic substances, and water. The mollusc gilds it with the iridescence of the rainbow. Natural pearls are mother nature's own works of art. Their shape, the way colours and light play off them, and their rarity, have always fascinated us. Kings and emperors wear pearls, beautiful women adorn themselves with them and, today, rare natural pearls are sought-after collectors’ items like never before.
The famous story of Cleopatra drinking pearls dissolved in vinegar is probably no more than a malicious invention by the puritanical Pliny the Elder, in protest at the wastefulness of the extravagant Egyptian queen. No table vinegar is so acidic that it can immediately dissolve a pearl. It is, however, true that one of the world's most famous pearls, La Peregrina, was very nearly eaten by a dog.
In 1969, Richard Burton bought the 16th-century pearl at auction for 37,000 US dollars, as a Valentine’s Day gift for Elizabeth Taylor. It was not long before the actress, as notorious as she was famous, lost the 50.56-carat pearl which had belonged to Philip II of Spain, Mary Stuart, Napoleon III, and Queen Victoria. It was found only when the desperate star noticed that her Pekingese was chewing on something! In 2011, La Peregrina was auctioned at Christie’s in New York for the record sum of just under 12 million US dollars.
The oldest pearls in the world
Natural pearls were once also referred to as “oriental pearls”. However, the earliest pearls ever found come from graves in Bahrain, on the Persian Gulf, and date from 5000 BC. It is no surprise that the oldest-known description of pearl fishing is found in the 4000-year-old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Just like the eponymous hero, diving to find a plant that will give him eternal life, the pearl divers of the Gulf region were still going about their perilous work up until 1940. Wearing weights, they would dive down to the oyster banks, collect the pearl oysters, release their weights and swim back up to the surface. According to the Epic, Gilgamesh “attached heavy stones to his feet. They dragged him down, to the Apsu [sea-bed] they pulled him. He took the plant, though it pricked his hand, and cut the heavy stones from his feet, letting the waves throw him onto the shores”. (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XI, translation by Maureen Gallery Kovacs.)