Pearls - A Brief History

Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were rare and expensive, available only to royalty and the very rich.  

Natural Pearls (or Oriental Pearls) occur when an irritant becomes lodged in the tissue of a mollusc. It secretes a calcium carbonate substance called nacre (nay-ker) to coat the irritant and protect the mollusc. Nacre is a combination of crystalline and organic substances. The nacre builds up in layers as it surrounds the irritant.  After a few years, this build up of nacre forms a pearl.

New natural pearls are so rare that 99% of all pearls sold now are cultured pearls.

Cultured Pearls are real pearls grown organically inside oysters in the same way as natural pearls. The only difference is that the initiation of the pearl formation has been started by man. To create a cultured pearl, a pearl farmer stimulates the development of the pearl by inserting a tiny bead - a "nucleus" - into the oyster. From there, the oyster coats the nucleus in many layers of natural minerals and proteins and the same process as natural pearl creation takes place. Cultured pearls cannot be distinguished from natural pearls without the use of x-rays to reveal the inner part of the pearl.

Freshwater pearls are often irregularly shaped, which lends character and originality. They differ from saltwater pearls in that they are almost entirely made up of nacre.White is the most common colour but freshwater pearls are noted for their wide range of colours from pinks and reds, copper, bronze, purples, blues, greens and yellows.
Keshi pearls are small natural pearls formed naturally in the soft tissue of the mollusc during the cultivation process from small pieces of the mollusc’s own shell. The mollusc treats these pieces as irritants and coats them with nacre.

One of the most famous pearls in the world is called La Peregrina (‘the incomparable’) and was found in the Americas. It is pear shaped and the size of a pigeon’s egg. Famous owners of this pearl have included Philip II of Spain, Mary Tudor of England and Napoleon III. The last owner is believed to have been Elizabeth Taylor.

Pearl Knotting

Pearls were very expensive and precious to their owners.  The tradition and technique of knotting stopped the pearls from rubbing together and damaging them but also prevented loss if the string were to break.  The embarrassment at court of one’s pearls being strewn across the floor whilst courtiers crawled around on their hands and knees looking for them was really too much for some Georgian ladies! Not to mention the carnage of people falling over on them – it really doesn’t bear thinking about.  

Individually knotted pearls mean that if your string were to break, only one pearl would fall to the ground.  

I follow this tradition and all my pearls are hand-knotted onto silk, so you should not find yourself embarrassed by falling pearls whilst in the company of royalty.