The unparalleled beauty of the pearl has become a metaphor for perfection, rarity and passion. Efectively the first discovered ‘gem’, though it’s organic rather than mineral, no accounts exist of the earliest human use of the pearl. Presumably, man first discovered it while hunting for food along the coasts, beginning a long-standing appreciation for one of humanity’s most coveted precious objects.
Fit For a Queen
Until recently, ownership of pearls was reserved exclusively for the rich and powerful. The oldest-known gem to be worn as jewellery was a fragment of pearl dating back to around 520 BC. The exquisite artefact was discovered in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess and is on display in the Louvre.
Many ancient Egyptian rulers were buried along with their pearl collection. Allegedly, Cleopatra once crushed a pearl and dissolved it in vinegar to prove to Marc Anthony that she could host the most lavish dinner party in history.
Ancient Greek and Roman leaders held pearls in similar regard, as did Chinese royalty and the indigenous Americans. The Greek word for ‘pearl’ actually means ‘unique’—a testament to the fact that no two pearls are alike. By the time of the Renaissance, pearls had evolved into a symbol of wealth and status, and laws were passed to declare that only nobles could wear the gem in public.
Natural or Cultured
Justifiably, wild pearls are worth more than cultured pearls. A large, naturally occurring round pearl of good quality is a formidable gem and, under gemological X-ray, would prove to consist of concentric rings of nacre layers.
The growth process is initiated when an irritant such as a grain of sand gets trapped within a mollusc. To protect itself, the mollusc coats the foreign object in a layer of nacre, building up layers over time to produce a pearl.
It may take over 100,000 oysters to harvest enough pearls to create a pearl necklace, explaining why a well-matched natural pearl strand is extremely rare. In 1916, one of the most renowned jewelers Jacques Cartier was able to purchase his 5th Avenue store by trading only two pearl necklaces in exchange for the plot. Now, sources for natural pearls are depleted—it’s thought that 90 percent of genuine saltwater pearls were harvested more than 90 years ago.
Cultured pearles are created by inserting a foreign object (often a bead) into the mollusc’s tissue to create the pearl. These are still highly valued for their appearance and uniformity. While a string of natural pearls can sell for over £1m, all pearls bought and sold on the retail market are cultured pearls.
Origins of a Cultured Pearl
The origins of a cultured pearl can affect its quality and value. Freshwater pearls grown in mussels living in rivers and lakes tend to be smaller, with a thicker nacre coating, and are less lustrous. Saltwater pearls with better lustre and shape are created in oysters farmed in oceans.
When choosing between pearl varieties, weighing appearance against investment. For example, since the nacre layer of freshwater pearls is thicker, they are more durable to wear. Saltwater pearls are more prone to chipping, but hold a higher value.
Freshwater pearls can match the lustre and shape of their saltwater counterparts, but at a more reasonable price. On the other end of the scale, ranging from smooth silver to dark, golden tones, South Sea pearls are considered the most valuable cultured pearl and are often called ‘the Queen of gems’.
According to Sotheby’s, ‘natural pearls are having their moment’. Most notably, in a Sotheby’s auction in Geneva on 15 November 2018, 10 treasures from Marie Antoinette’s famous diamond and pearl collection went under the hammer. The Queen’s dazzling diamond pendant supporting an exceptional natural pearl (26mm x 18mm), achieved nearly US$37m, establishing a new auction record for a natural pearl and contributing to a total of US$42.7 million for the tragic Queen’s exquisite pieces.
The Unique Jewellery of Michael Michaud
For more than two decades Michael Michaud has perfected the craft of creating botanical jewellery by achieving the seemingly impossible: creating a mould of the most delicate, unique botanical elements, capturing infinitesimally fine and lifelike details then reproducing them as stunning, wearable jewellery using soft patinas on bronze, silver or gold accented with pearls, beads and precious stones.
He has quietly honed this unique expression of his creativity, inspired by nature. His singular ability to do this combined with an unequivocal vision for the jewellery he would create, has stood the test of time and authenticity.
Michael Michaud’s current incarnation has been as wearable art that can be purchased in the most prestigious museums in the world, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Van Gogh Museum and the Château de Versailles.
This feature was originally published in the spring edition of Arts and Collections, which you can also read here.