Pearls with a Past

September 1998

From the Vault

Pearls with a Past

World events drove natural pearls to unnatural highs and cleared the way for acceptance of their cultured counterparts

Pearls have always captivated us with their soft luster, their association with wealth and power and their role in history.

Before the advent of culturing, natural pearls were plucked from the Persian Gulf and the waters of Ceylon and Australia, with the main trading center in Bombay. Strands of fine-quality spherical pearls were particularly in demand. But because natural pearls most often occur in baroque shapes, dealers needed long periods to assemble strands of perfectly spherical pearls.

Natural pearls attained unprecedented value around 1910, when elite upper classes vied with each other to buy them. The fact that a two-strand natural pearl necklace (128 pearls) was considered fair exchange for a six-story Renaissance mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City says it all. As both were valued at $1 million, it was a trade Mrs. Morton Plant confidently made with Jacques Cartier in 1917.

About the same time in Japan, Tokichi Nishikawa, Tatsuhei Mise and Kokichi Mikimoto, independently of each other, experimented with pearl culture. These experiments ultimately met with success, and cultured pearls found their way into the European and American markets in the early 1920s.

Dealers of natural pearls were offended by cultivated pearls and refused, incorrectly, to acknowledge them as anything other than imitations. Unfortunately for the dealers, the following series of world events caused the natural pearl market to collapse:

  • The new Persian Gulf oil industry, promising better pay and steady work, drew divers away from pearling. Pearl harvests dwindled, providing few natural pearls to fill demand.
  • The introduction of plastic buttons devastated the secondary market for mother-of-pearl buttons.
  • The 1929 stock market crash crushed the weakened natural pearl market. During the 1930s, prices for natural pearls fell to a 10th of their former value.

A New Day, A New Way
The less-expensive and increasingly available cultured pearl stepped into this void. But again world events halted progress when the pearl farms in Japan and the South Seas were destroyed by World War II and, with wartime privations, pearls fell out of fashion for well over a decade.

Interest in luxury items grew again in the postwar '50s. Pearls, natural and cultured, staged a comeback as symbols of affluence. While a single graduated strand of pearls was by far the most common manifestation, a chic new style called for one or more strands of matched pearls on a decorative clasp of platinum or white gold, set with diamonds alone or a combination of diamonds with other gems.

These decorative clasps were popularly worn in front and to one side, causing the pearls to drape luxuriantly. An even richer look was to have two decorative motifs in platinum and diamonds symmetrically placed at either side with the pearls festooned between them and the clasp in back. In 1956, Prince Rainier gave Grace Kelly a necklace of this type as a wedding present along with a matching multistrand pearl bracelet, earrings and ring – a truly regal suite that clearly demonstrated how pearls had regained their status as the epitome of high class and impeccable taste.

This stylized floral spray of platinum and diamonds is typical of decorative clasps in vogue for pearl necklaces in the 1950s. Shown here with a single strand, the clasp is designed to accommodate up to three strands of pearls for a really lush appearance. Courtesy of Camilla Dietz-Bergeron Ltd., Antique and Estate Jewelry, New York, NY.

– by Elise Misiorowski




Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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