By Harlan Yaffe,
Fashion Editor, Todo Ahora
December 6, 2002

Pearls: the ancient Egyptians prized them so much they were buried with them. In the glory days of the Roman Empire, they were considered the ultimate symbol of wealth and luxury. In perhaps the biggest real estate coup since the island of Manhattan was purchased from the Indians for a bag of beads, famed jeweler Jacques Cartier bought the real estate for his flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue in 1916 by trading two strands of pearls. Today, the magnetism of their shiny iridescence maintains their position as one of the most universally desired symbols of opulence.

The soft mysterious glow of the pearl continues to captivate and beguile women. Pearls remain a symbol of love, elegance and refinement. We wonder at nature's mysterious ability to perfectly reflect life's deepest and most blessed passions in something so small yet so breathtaking. Because their temptation is so legendary, jewelers often refer to pearls as "instant heirlooms."  Having such a long history as a luxury item, pearls have a rich tapestry of varieties and definite heirachy of attributes in determining their value. 

Nature vs Nurture
In Latin, the word for pearl literally translates as "unique," attesting to the fact that no two pearls are identical.  This is because all pearls have one jeweler in common: Mother Nature.

A natural pearl forms in the ocean when an accidental irritant such as sand, a parasite or any foreign object enters the oyster. In a defensive response, the mollusk begins secreting nacre (thin layers of calcium carbonate) to cover the intruder.  Since this occurrence is literally a coincidence of floating debris and ocean floor currents, prior to the advent of cultured pearls, pearls were only available to the highest ranks of nobility.

A cultured pearl is formed in much the same way, but with man supplying the initial irritant instead of nature to get the process started. Pearl growers report only about 15% of the crop will be of gem quality. Pearls are grown over a period of one to two years, under the constant care of farmers keeping a watchful eye on their crop. The overall quality of the harvest is dependent on a wide variety of factors, including water temperature, the local food supply, and pollution levels.

Baroque pearls, named after the species of oyster used, will almost always be irregular and oblong in shape due to the odd shapes that are introduced into the mollusk.


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