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  • A soufflé pearl is carved out and set with seed pearls and blue topaz by Little H. (Photo: Little H)
  • Parasol pendant featuring a carved Tahitian pearl and black diamonds by William Travis Jewelry. (Photo: William Travis Jewelry)
  • Sapphires and diamonds accent white South Sea pearls in these earrings by Yoko London. (Photo: Yoko London)
  • Pearls enhance the shank and top of these emerald rings by Andreoli. (Photo: Andreoli)
  • Inspired by the shape of the baroque pearl, Alessio Boschi created this seahorse in gold, accented with pearl“bubbles,” diamonds and gemstones. (Photo: Alessio Boschi)
  • Deirdre Featherstone uses both the art of maki-e and mosaics in dressing up the pearls used in her hoop earrings accented with diamonds. (Photo Deirdre Featherstone)
  • Example of a contemporary ring with a golden South Sea pearl set with diamonds in gold by Jewelmer. (Photo: Jewelmer)

The perseverance and progression of pearls

By Cynthia Unninayar

The beauty and mystery of pearls has fascinated humans since antiquity. Resulting from an accidental find while hunting for food, the bright shiny pearl evolved into a cultural object considered to be endowed with magical properties. Early on, these organic gems became the symbol of wealth and prestige. The first pearl necklace is thought to date back 2,500 years to the Persian kings in Susa with the discovery of a three-strand necklace in their Winter Palace.

Early appreciation of pearls can be found in examples of adornment in ancient India, Sri Lanka, China, and other parts of the world. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, large quantities of pearls flowed into Europe, where they adorned royalty and later became sacred objects of the Church. Following his travels in the 13th century, Marco Polo described the areas where pearls were found and their use in the palaces of Asian rulers, thus solidifying their popularity.

Along with the search for gold, emeralds and other riches in the New World, European explorers also sought out pearls. Dating back to the 1500s, European royal families considered natural pearls from the New World to be among the rarest and most prized of all things, even exceeding the value of gold and emeralds. “The pearl story begins with the indigenous people of the Americas,” explains Gina Latendresse, of American Pearl Company. “They collected molluscs for food, ornamental purposes and currency, long before European explorers arrived. Pearls were worn as adornments and mother-of-pearl shells were hand-fashioned as currency, ceremonial gifts and storytelling strings, most notably the purple Quahog Clam, aka Wampum. The European settlers arrived and traded pearls, sending them back to Europe to be included in crown jewels.”

Jumping ahead several hundred years to the early 20th century, the popularity of pearls reached its height, as did prices, with pearl jewellery accounting for a large portion of a jeweller’s sales. Then, in 1916, a seismic shift happened. The Japanese company Mikimoto began producing round “cultured” pearls, with a technique discovered by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893. Although the natural pearl industry continued into the mid-20th century, the new and less expensive cultured pearls offered women of all classes the opportunity to own a pearl necklace or other form of pearl adornment.

As the culture of pearls spread out from Japan, pearls in all types and colours—from salt-water species to freshwater molluscs—began coming to market from Australia, French Polynesia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, the Philippines, Mexico, China and more. Over the nearly five millennia of pearl history, these rapid changes in the industry have occurred in just the last 100 years.

Today, the cultured pearl continues to enjoy a high degree of popularity and the traditional strand is a must-have in many jewellery wardrobes. Even the natural pearl, while rare and expensive, has an audience, albeit a much more restricted one than before. While cultured salt-water South Sea pearls have reduced pearl price levels from those of the natural pearls, there has been further “democratisation” of pearl jewellery with freshwater cultured pearls—and notably 95 percent comes from China.

In some ways, we can compare the pearl of today to a gemstone. Indeed, it is a living organic gem that comes in a variety of shapes, colours, sizes and types, from seed pearls to rounds, from flat to baroque, to cite but a few. As such, its usages are similar to gemstones. And, having said that, one of the trends over the last few years has been to combine pearls with gems, sometimes matching colours, while other times using pearls of various hues to contrast with colours gems and/or diamonds.

The basic pearl strand—or multiple strands—is a staple but, like gemstones, it dresses up precious metals in all designs. Clearly, pearls resonate with consumers. A recent poll by Vogue magazine of its Vogue Runway Instagram followers indicated that “delicate pearls had the most votes as far as jewels were concerned.” It is no wonder, therefore, that pearls of all types are dressing up jewellery, as designers create both modern and traditional styles.

Dressing up the pearl itself
In the last few years, designers have not only been dressing up jewellery with pearls, but have been dressing up the pearls themselves. One enterprising young designer is Hisano Shepherd. After visiting the Tucson gem shows and seeing so many gorgeous geodes, she came up with the idea of making pearls look like geodes. “I decided to start cutting and slicing the pearls and lining them with gemstones and seed pearls,” she explains. Shepherd also bores holes into pearls and sets this little window with gems as well. As a professional pearl buyer for her family business, she sources pearls from the large Hong Kong shows and is thus able to select ones with the right size and colour, which she then uses for her hand-crafted Little H jewellery line. “I use all sorts of stones, which have good colour,” she adds. Shepherd also uses the rarest form of freshwater pearls called “soufflé” pearls, which are cultured with earth matter. Once the earth matter is removed, she lines the “little house” with gems or seed pearls. She also uses golden, white and Tahitian pearls from the South Seas in her various collections.

Going for baroque, other creative designers are using their imagination to take irregularly shaped pearls and convert them into an animal, plant, flower or other motifs. One such designer is Alessio Boschi who seeks out these “perfectly imperfect pearls” for his collection of whimsical fish, rabbits, chickens, cats, mice, mythical creatures and more as well as his more serious interpretation of melting icecaps and desperate polar bears or endangered sharks.

As carved gemstones add originality to a jewel, carved pearls do the same with creative motifs. And, this trend is catching on. Among jewellers who are paying attention is Travis Kukovich of William Travis Jewelry. In his Parasol Collection, he used a carved Tahitian pearl in combination with black diamonds beads with two-tone carat caps, suspended from an oxidized silver chain. “I believe as a designer, we are fortunate that almost every piece is a collaboration with a stonecutter, pearl carver, or Pietra dura artist (inlay),” muses Kukovich. “Inspiring one another is a symbiotic relationship.”

Another one of Kukovich’s symbiotic relationships is the use of pearls that have been painted with the ancient Japanese technique of “Maki-e” as well as pearls decorated with mosaics. First developed in the Heian period (794-1185), the Maki-e technique, which means “sprinkled picture,” refers to Japanese lacquer that is sprinkled with gold or silver powder to create a design on an object, in this case, a pearl. Pearl mosaics are more recent and feature small abalone tiles that may also be painted with the Maki-e technique. Designer Deirdre Featherstone also pairs maki-e and mosaic pearls with gemstones to enhance the designs. “Maki-e pearls are a beautiful blend of talent and tradition, I was drawn to them because of the artistry and textural variety they added to our collection,” she comments.

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