Of all the priceless gifts that are bestowed upon us by Mother Nature, pearls are indeed some of the most mysterious and ethereal. Men have journeyed on century-long voyages for the acquisition of these jewels of the sea.
Born in the deep waters and carved into perfection by Neptune, pearls come in a variety of aquatic and coral shades – from white to lavender, to black, pistachio green or pink. Pearls are judged by their shape, though only a few do end up being perfectly rounded – each pearl is unique and never completely identical.
The painstaking effort that goes into pearl-fishing is remarkable. Amongst a bed of thousands of shells, only one natural pearl can be found, and different molluscs, oysters and oceanic locations birth an array of opalescent offspring.
The legend tells us that Cleopatra wanted to impress Mark Antony, the Roman leader and her lover. The last queen of Egypt removed her pearl earring, dropped it into her wine and drank it. The earring itself was oversized and the pearl was worth a fortune. It’s either just a beautiful legend or possibly the most expensive fashion statement ever made.
Unlike Cleopatra, European monarchs preferred to have their pearls on display, so they wore them in every possible way, as has been recorded in royal portraits. Pearls were sewn into clothing, incorporated into hairdos, studded in tiaras and crowns, and adorned into the incredible jewellery pieces they owned.
The most celebrated, however, was the pearl called La Peregrina – a perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped gem which had been found in the waters of Panama. It was one of the largest and most expensive pearls in the world, and used to belong to Mary Tudor of England and the Bonapartes of France.
Subsequently, this rare piece has been passed down from generation to generation, until Richard Burton purchased the pearl when it went on auction in 1969. It was a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife Elizabeth Taylor.
Image: Elizabeth Taylor
In her book Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewellery, she writes, “At one point I reached down to touch La Peregrina and it wasn’t there! I glanced over at Richard and thank God he wasn’t looking at me, and I went into the bedroom and threw myself on the bed, buried my head into the pillow and screamed. […] What am I going to do? He’ll kill me!” After a while, Elizabeth noticed her puppy chewing on something. “I just casually opened the puppy’s mouth and inside his mouth was the most perfect pearl in the world. It was – thank God – not scratched.”
The painting Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer Johannes is often referred to as the Mona Lisa of the North. No one really knows who she is or what her relation was to the Dutch artist. The mysterious story behind the portrait inspired Tracy Chevalier to write her acclaimed novel, which later became a Hollywood masterpiece starring Scarlett Johansson. Despite the art piece’s majesty, many have debated the pearl’s existence, as its size is somewhat unrealistic.
Image: Girl with a Pearl Earring painting by Vermeer Johannes
An unrivalled provider of pearl jewellery is undoubtedly Mikimoto Kokichi. In the beginning of the 20th century, he developed the technique required to produce pearls on an industrial scale, and now carves timeless wonders with melo, conch and akoya pearls, to name but a few types.
It seems that the fascination with pearls will never cease to exist. This natural treasure will always be a worthy investment. However, the classic string of pearls has recently been given an edgy update. From minimalist-rings to effortlessly modern necklaces and bracelets, pearls create a look which both classic and of the moment.