pearl history

  • All About Pearls: Nacre and Color

    Cultured pearl, turquoise and diamond earrings, Orb Collection

    South Sea cultured pearl, turquoise and diamond earrings, Orb Collection, Yael Designs

    The factors of size, shape, color, luster, surface quality, nacre and matching all have very strong effects on the look of a pearl and how well it will hold up to wear and tear over time. Nacre and color are just two of these seven factors that ought to be considered when choosing cultured pearls for yourself. Size and shape were discussed in our previous blog post, and we will be discussing luster, surface quality and matching in the next blog post.

    To the naked eye, pearls look like delicate smooth globes of soft light. But under magnification, it’s a different story. Pearls have a texture closer to fine grit sandpaper; which is why you can feel their texture against your teeth, and partially why a lightly textured substance such as fish scales and varnish makes such a good coating for imitation pearls.


    Electron microscopy image of a fractured surface of nacre, By Fabian Heinemann

    Electron microscopy image of a fractured surface of nacre, By Fabian Heinemann

    Under magnification, the two substances that compose nacre become visible. One is platelets of aragonite, a crystallized form of calcium carbonate, and the other is conchiolin, the binding agent that holds the platelets of aragonite together, rather like bricks held in place by cement. And, in fact, when viewed in cross-section, this is exactly what nacre looks like! Each layer is semi-transparent, allowing light to pass through them and create that soft glow that pearls are so well known and loved for. Nacre and mother-of-pearl are made of the same substance, but have different names dependent on where they are found.

    Growing time within the oyster strongly affects how much nacre forms on the pearl. And more nacre generally means better luster and that the cultured pearl will wear and last better. But the longer the cultured pearl is left in the oyster, the more likely it is to become off-round; and round is a very important shape for pearls. Growing time, generally 6 months to 6 years, is usually kept to an optimal length to maintain this round shape; usually between 6 months to 3 years. This is one of the reasons that natural pearls are favored over cultured pearls: Because they are entirely formed from nacre, unlike cultured pearls which are started from beads, they are said to have better luster and wear for generations if well cared for. But they are seldom round.


    Pinctada Maxima by Line1

    Pinctada Maxima shell, photo by Line1

    Color is another important and obvious factor upon which pearls are judged. Pearls come in a variety of colors. The strongest factor as to what color a pearl will form in is the color of the “lip” of the oyster – the color of the mother-of-pearl already there. The color of the lip of the oyster that donates mantle tissue during the nucleation process can also affect the color of the pearl, but usually, these are both the same breed of oyster with the same color lip. Color can also be affected by any pollutants in the water.


    Baroque freshwater cultured pearl and diamond necklace

    Baroque freshwater cultured pearl and diamond one-of-a-kind pendant, Yael Designs

    It is more difficult to breed for certain colors of freshwater cultured pearls than it is for salt water cultured pearls because many of the mussels used to grow pearls have lips of multiple colors. Also, there are some pearl farmers who are experimenting with adding small amounts of "pollutants" directly into the mussels to see what color these chemicals influence the cultured pearls into becoming.


    Freshwater cultured pearl and diamond necklace, Custom Collection

    Freshwater cultured pearl and diamond pendant, Custom Collection, Yael Designs

    But body color is only the tip of the color iceberg for pearls. Some pearls also have overtone and/or orient. Overtone is defined as "one or more translucent colors that lie over a pearl's body color". It is believed that overtone might be caused by diffraction of light around the edges where nacre crystals overlap. These pearls have an additional glow of rose, green, blue, etc. over their main color. Rose is the most prized for Akoya grown cultured pearls. On dark green-grey Tahitian cultured pearls, the addition of rose to purple overtones create the prized "peacock" color.


    Tahitian cultured pearl and diamond ring, Orb Collection

    Tahitian cultured pearl and diamond ring, Orb Collection, Yael Designs

    In our next blog, we'll touch on the last three major concerns when choosing out a pearl: luster, surface quality and matching.



  • All About Pearls; History: Who really discovered the secret of cultured pearls?

    Read part 1 here


    Part two has a larger cast of characters than part one. Below are listed our main players:

    Mikimoto Kokichi – the father of cultured pearls.

    William Saville-Kent – English Marine Biologist, best known for his work with coral.

    Tokichi Nishikawa – A technician for fisheries investigations

    Tatsuhei Mise – A carpenter

    orb pearl collection ringCultured pearl, diamond and 18k white gold ring, Orb Pearl Collection, Yael Designs

    The two people who history credits with discovering the method to nucleate cultured pearls were two young Japanese men, Tokichi Nishikawa and Tatsuhei Mise. Nishikawa was a relatively recent graduate from Tokyo University (1897) who was appointed as technician for fisheries investigations and Mise was a carpenter by trade. Neither had previously been involved with extensive research of any type. Though seeming to not know each other, they both came up with the same scientific principles and both announced their success at the same time. So how did this happen?

    There is some belief that there was some collusion on the part of the Japanese government. The technological level of the country was low at the time, so it is believed that the Japanese government was sending people out to gather technology and information to return with to Japan. Supporting this line of reasoning: the Japanese Bureau of Fisheries sent the stepfather of Mise, senior inspector of Japanese pearling boats, and Nishikawa to the area of William Saville-Kent's pearl farm in late 1901 for about half a year. Together, these two gentlemen had the background to assimilate Saville-Kent's research. Once they were retired from their appointments, (for Nishikawa that was in 1905 when he was appointed to a university to undertake pearl research,) they began experimenting with Saville-Kent's methods, Mise's stepfather working with Mise.


    orb pearl collection earringsCultured pearl, rubellite, diamond and 18k rose gold earrings, Orb Pearl Collection, Yael Designs

    Mise entered his patent on May 13, 1907, claiming to have made his initial discovery in 1904. Nishikawa entered his patent on October 23, 1907 saying he'd just made his discovery. Finding that Mise had beaten him to the punch, Nishikawa backdated his date of discovery to February 20, 1899, making sure to choose a date previous to his trip to Australia so that he could claim original inventor status, even from a front that no-one in Japan had yet mentioned. Mise and Nishikawa would continue their argument past Nishikawa's death in 1909, both sides coming to an agreement to combine their patents in 1916, and rename their method the Mise-Nishikawa method.


    Cherry Blossom Festival Crown, 1957

    Cherry Blossom Festival Crown, 1957, Mikimoto

    Now how was Mikimoto involved in all of this? Around the time Nishikawa entered his patent, he married Mikimoto's daughter. (Nishikawa went to and later worked at the University that the professor Mikimoto occasionally consulted with also worked.) Mikimoto, at this time, owned a very successful pearl shop in the fashionable Ginza district of Tokyo selling natural seed pearls and half round cultured pearls. (This shop went international in 1913.) Mikimoto, seeing these patents going up around him in 1907, entered his own patent for growing round pearls in 1908 which shrunk how much the Mise-Nishikawa method could cover. However, Mikimoto's method was unreliable, time intensive and required a lot of management. But this did allow him to start modifying his methods and those listed on his patent to continue to put pressure on the Mise-Nishikawa patent, until he could finally buy into it. 


    Miss USA crown, 2002

    Miss USA Crown, 2002, Mikimoto

    Once everything was legally on the up-and-up, in 1916, Mikimoto began working with Akoya oysters to produce cultured pearls which quickly expanded his business. He was an amazing promoter and staunch defender of cultured pearls. He traveled the world in a time when travel was still laborious to show his pearls and to learn what styles were most popular in major city centers. He pulled off exceptionally successful publicity stunts such as burning shovelfuls of low quality cultured pearls in 1935, to drive home that he would never sell such quality pearls. And he successfully defended his cultured pearls against claims put forth that his pearls were not "real". The entire pearl industry, as well as everyone who owns or wears any cultured pearl jewelry, owes a debt to Mikimoto. Without his tireless work and promotion, these perfect round globes of softly gleaming light would not be available to all of us.


    orb pearl collection ring

    Cultured pearl, diamond and 18k white gold ring, Orb Pearl Collection, Yael Designs

    There is less recorded about Mise than Mikimoto. Mise and his brother joined forces with Mitsubishi and began commercializing South Sea pearling. They produced their first viable commercial crop of cultured pearls in 1928, four years after Mise's death.

     And one last chapter on the history of the discovery of nucleating and culturing pearls: After WWII, in 1949, an official of the US Government explored the question of who the true holder of the patent should be, Mise or Nishikawa. Looking at just the evidence presented, this official deemed Mise the originator and Nishikawa the usurper. Rumor has it that Mikimoto, who lived till 1954, was involved in pressuring the official to name Mise, as opposed to his son-in-law, the true patent holder. A believable rumor, as the official was learning about cultured pearls and cultured pearl production at Mikimoto's pearl farm.

     History does not state why Mikimoto would have favored Mise's claim over his own son-in-law's. Both men had passed away long previously. Mikimoto was always fiercely protective of the cultured pearl invention: perhaps he chose Mise because Mise had never been to Australia, and it would be harder to trace the true origins of the nucleation method. It is also possible that Mikimoto was honoring a deal he might have made with Mise when Mise chose to use his patent for South Sea pearls and left Akoya pearls in Mikimoto's very capable hands.

    Hello Kitty Tiara

    Hello Kitty Tiara, Mikimoto



  • All About Pearls; History: Who really discovered the secret of cultured pearls?

    It turns out, it is very likely that everything you think you know about the birth of cultured pearls isn't true...or at least, like a cultured pearl, has a grain of truth in the center, surrounded by layers of misconception.


    cultured pearlsCultured pearls Photo by GIA

    Most of the general public believe that a Japanese man named Mikimoto Kokichi came up with the commercially viable method for nucleating cultured pearls that most pearl farms use. Nucleation refers to the insertion of an object, generally a shell bead and/or a bit of mantle, into the oyster to cause a pearl to form. The grain of truth is that Mikimoto and his wife Ume did experiment tirelessly on their pearl farm to try to create a round pearl through human interference. And they had much difficulty and nearly went broke; and they did succeed. But what they succeeded at was making a half-round pearl, the type we now refer to as a mabe cultured pearl, not the beautifully, perfectly round pearls we think of when we hear the term "cultured".


    Orb Pearl Collection RingCultured Pearl, Spessartite and Diamond Ring, Orb Pearl Collection

    The rest of the truth is much more convoluted.

    The man evidence points to as having actually discovered the method of nucleating cultured pearls was an English marine biologist by the name of William Saville-Kent, living in Australia. By the time of his discovery, he was a very stable and respected individual; but his youth was filled with misadventure. His mother passed away when he was young, and his father wooed the nanny while the mother was deathly ill, to then marry the nanny after his mother had passed. The eldest and favored of his half-siblings (a boy) from this second marriage was murdered when not even four years old, a murder his favorite sister Constance confessed to nearly five years later. There is some thought that Constance confessed to cover for William himself. There is also belief that the crime was complex enough that it would have required two, and that William and his sister both murdered the small child. Whatever the truth, Saville-Kent grew up to be a well respected marine biologist working with several museums and aquariums throughout Britain. He then became inspector of Fisheries in Tasmania, Commisioner of Fisheries in Queensland and then for Western Australia. He was well known for his studies on coral, exhibiting his coral photos and illustrations in 1892, and more interestingly to us, William also showed a large, fine pearl that he had caused an oyster to produce. This was the first cultured pearl that he had displayed so publicly, and presumably the best one he had produced so far.


    Saville-Kent CoralCoral Illustration by Saville-Kent

    The study of the cultivation of pearls took more and more of Saville-Kent's time after 1892, and he would discuss the process with anyone who asked. In fact, during his lifetime, British researchers were eschewing patents, viewing them as an obstruction to research, benefiting the few at the expense of public good; so he would have done what he could to spread knowledge so that additional gains could be made through group research. When Saville-Kent died in 1908, he would have never heard about his method being patented in 1907, in a small country that at the time the world considered to be a backwater, known as Japan.

    Our following blog post will go into the patent wars that followed Saville-Kent's discovery, which are rife with half-truths, deceptions, family drama, bribery and corruption. Which is why it's been so hard to piece the true story together.

    Orb Pearl Collection EarringsCultured pearl, Rubellite and Diamond Earrings, Orb Pearl Collection


    Click here to for part 2



  • All About Pearls; History: The Hanover Pearls

    Queen Elizabeth I and the Hanover Pearls


    Do you love pearls? You’re not alone! The pearl has been one of the most beloved of gems for longer than we can trace. It seems likely that pearls were first discovered by someone more interested in supper. But even during that distant era, the prestige of owning a fine object such as a pearl would have elevated the possessor’s status.


    Tower of LondonThe Tower of London at night

    Today we’re going to start exploring the history of the pearl. Our first stop is medieval England, a place and time full of upheaval and scheming.



    Princess Elizabeth IEven young, Princess Elizabeth begins to build her image

    Queen Elizabeth I understood that trappings make the man or woman. She created an image of herself as untouchable; the Virgin Queen, building a cult around her virgin status. She utilized pearls to solidify this image, using them to represent her virtue and chastity, saying she was married to her people.



    Mary, Queen of ScotsRight: Mary, Queen of Scots wearing a strand of the Hanover pearls, a gift from her mother-in-law; Left: Mary, Queen of Scots after the loss of her throne

    Mary, Queen of Scots, also used jewels to try to solidify her power base, but she didn't have her cousin's flair for the dramatic. Instead, she used her jewels as gifts and to purchase what she needed. In the end, her image problems were what brought her down.

    When she was forced off her throne, her successors took her jewels and used them the same way she did; selling them at discount to finance the new monarchy. Amongst them were several exceptional pearl strands and loose pearls that became known collectively as the Hanover Pearls. Queen Elizabeth I gleefully scooped them up as soon as they were made available.



    Detail of The Rainbow PortraitLeft: Detail of Queen Elizbeth I in The Rainbow Portrait, depicting her as Astaea. The pearls she wears are strikingly similar to those seen in Mary, Queen of Scot's portrait, above.

    Queen Elizabeth I did keep her cousin in safety in England, but she also deprived Mary of her freedom and any possibility of regaining her throne. In the end, Elizabeth also ordered her cousin’s death, though it is reported that she instantly regretted it.



    The Armada PortraitQueen Elizabeth I in The Armada Portrait. Here she wears all the Hanover Pearls plus several from her own collection.

    However, regret or not, she did enjoy wearing the pearls that used to belong to her cousin!

    Though Queen Elizabeth II wears two short strands referred to as the Hanover pearls, the majority have not been positively identified amongst the modern crown jewels of England. It is thought that they have become separated through the ensuing years. The pearls on the British Coronation Crown are believed to be some of the remaining identified Hanover pearls.


    British Coronation CrownThe British Coronation Crown, front and back


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