We most often think of pearls in a long string, in the fashion of simple yet stunning necklaces and bracelets worn by mid-20th century glamour icons like Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet pearl rings have been a favorite of royalty for centuries; rings were often favored because until the 1900s, the natural gemstone was so rare and valuable that not many people could afford to use so many pearls in a single piece of jewelry. Before that time, pearls were primarily set in earrings, brooches or rings if worn as accessories. They were also luxurious decoration for furnishings and clothing, treasured possessions to be admired on their own, or even financial assets to be traded for property or valuables.
Everything changed around the turn of the 20th century with the discovery of culturing: the method used to induce oysters or mussels into producing pearls on demand. Once cultured pearls were universally accepted as “real” pearls by the jewelry industry and governments around the world, the price of the stone dropped dramatically and demand for pearl jewelry exploded. Today, nearly all pearls are cultured, and the gem has become available to virtually anyone in search of an elegant pearl ring, necklace, pendant, bracelet or earrings.
Since the history of pearls is so fascinating, we’ll spend a little time taking a look back; we’ll then examine the popularity of pearl engagement rings, pearl wedding rings, and other pieces designed around the stone. Before that, though, we have one small but important piece of business to get out of the way.
Are Pearls Gemstones?
Most experts say “yes,” even though pearls aren’t inorganic minerals found in the ground like other gemstones. Instead, they’re organic objects created when an oyster or other mollusk makes layers of nacre (the combination of calcium carbonate and a protein, often called mother-of-pearl) to cover a foreign object inside the shell. The more accurate way to describe pearls is as “organic gems” or “organic gemstones” – but in common usage, and for the purposes of this article, we’ll simply use the terms gems, stones or gemstones.
The History of Pearls
It is often said that pearls are the world’s oldest gemstone, known to have been collected by members of many civilizations as long ago as six millennia, and referred to many times in the Bible as well as ancient Hindu and Chinese texts. Hindus believe that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl, and historians have documented the use of pearls by Chinese royalty around 2300 B.C. The oldest known piece of pearl jewelry dates back to about 520 B.C., discovered buried with a Persian princess.
Pearls were prized by the ancient Greeks, who made valuable necklaces from them and wore them at weddings for their reputed ability to bring love. But it was perhaps the Romans who prized pearls and pearl jewelry more than any other civilization, as they viewed the gemstone as the most prestigious symbol of status and wealth. A certain rank in society was required before a person was even allowed to wear pearl jewelry. There many stories which have survived from that time showing how precious pearls were to Roman leaders. For example, 33 different pearl crowns were worn at the victory parade (known as a triumph) for Roman military leader Pompey the Great in 61 B.C., the famed emperor Caligula embroidered his slippers with pearls and even placed a pearl necklace around the neck of his favorite horse, and the Roman general Vitellius was said to have financed one of his military campaigns simply by selling a pearl earring belonging to his mother.
The most revealing story about the value of pearls in ancient civilizations, however, comes from Egypt where the gems were also revered. Cleopatra wanted to convince Marc Antony that Rome would never be able to conquer Egypt because of her nation’s immense wealth, so she bet him that she could create the most expensive dinner in history. He accepted the wager, and watched as the Queen crushed an enormous pearl from one of her earrings, dissolved it in a goblet of wine, and drank it. Antony turned down an opportunity to consume Cleopatra’s other pearl and admitted defeat. The ancient gemologist Pliny’s estimate of the value of Cleopatra’s “pearl cocktail” was 60 million sesterces – which today would equate to more than nine million dollars.
Since very few pearls are naturally created and harvested, they remained in high demand for the centuries that followed. They were often used in the Catholic Church and by European royalty; when the Crusaders returned from the Middle East, they not only brought back gemstones, but the art of pearl embroidery which became popular in the Church and among those who had enough money to purchase the gems.
A large, new supply of pearls reached Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries (the 16th century was known as the “Pearl Age” on the continent) when explorers not only “discovered” the New World, but discovered natives wearing pearls. They found rich saltwater pearl beds in Central and South American seas as well as freshwater beds in North American rivers, and the stones quickly made their way to Europeans of royalty, nobility and wealth whose demand for pearl rings and other jewelry was insatiable. The harvesting beds of the Western Hemisphere were nearly exhausted within several hundred years.
What happened around the dawn of the 20th century would complete change the way the world viewed pearls. At approximately the same time in Japan, the son of a noodle maker, a government biologist and a carpenter each discovered how to “force” oysters to make pearls through a process which would become known as culturing – inserting tissue and shell into an oyster to create a pearl sac. That induced the oyster to generate nacre to cover the sac and turn it into a pearl. There were various patent and legal battles among the men, but the noodle maker’s son, Kohichi Mikimoto, emerged with the prize: an enormous worldwide cultured pearl empire which still exists today.
Round cultured pearls were first sold commercially by Mikimoto in 1921, and within 15 years Japan had nearly 350 pearl farms responsible for producing ten million cultured pearls a year. Around that time, cultured pearls (which had to be labeled as such) were finally accepted by the industry and the public at large as the “real thing,” and pearl rings, necklaces and bracelets became must-have, elegant fashion accessories – particularly because icons like Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn were all wearing strands of Mikimoto cultured pearls in public. With the supply of cultured pearls virtually unlimited, nearly every woman could finally afford to wear the “Queen of Gems.”
Cultured pearls dominate today’s market, but natural pearls are still available – usually with enormous price tags. A tiny strand of natural pearls once given to a baby can be worth $1000 or more, a high-quality, an adult-sized pearl necklace originally produced in 1905 recently sold for $120,000, and a pair of pearl earrings once belonging to Napoleon’s wife brought $3.3 million at auction. Before 1900, large-scale pearl harvesting required divers to go down to depths of 75-100 feet; harvesting one ton of oysters in very deep water usually produced only a few quality pearls. Small-scale pearl harvesting is all that’s legal these days, and pollution and overfishing have greatly diminished the number of productive beds. That means very few “new” natural pearls hit the market each year. For this reason, most natural pearls available for purchase are vintage or antique.
Culturing doesn’t diminish the beauty of pearls in any way. All it does is make an enormous supply available at dramatically lower prices, although some cultured pearls can still be quite expensive – just nowhere near what they would be worth if they were natural. Those grown in salt water are normally more costly than cultured freshwater pearls; identical-looking gems can vary in price depending on their origin, and a $2 freshwater pearl might look almost the same as a $100 saltwater gem. Freshwater pearls are generally less desirable because they come from mussels, whose pearls are often odd-shaped and never perfectly round. Quality is always a key factor, though, as high-end freshwater pearls can cost much more than lower-quality saltwater stones.
One warning: just because cultured pearls are plentiful today, that doesn’t mean every pearl you see will be real. There’s big business in fake pearls. Some are labeled and sold as faux pearls, glass pearls, simulated pearls or something similar. Others will be sold as cultured pearls when they’re really not. Believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to tell most fakes – you do it exactly the way you’ve see people doing it on TV or in movies, with a tooth test. Rub the stones across the bottom edges of your front teeth, and if the gems feel a little rough or “gritty” they’re probably real (you’re feeling the layers of nacre). If they feel smooth, they’re probably fakes.
Buying Pearl Jewelry
When shopping for a pearl ring, bracelet or necklace, the first thing to consider is the type of pearl – freshwater, saltwater or natural. You already know that natural pearls are only for the select few who can afford them and that saltwater gems are usually more expensive than those from freshwater. There’s more to the story, though.
There are hundreds of varieties of saltwater pearls, and variety plays a large part in the gem’s value. Akoya pearls are the most popular, farmed mostly in China (smaller stones) and Japan (larger ones). They’re considered desirable because they’re a rich white color with brilliant luster, and are the most likely variety to be perfectly round. You’ll also see dyed Akoya pearls sold in a black or dark blue color. Other often-seen saltwater gems, which look particularly stunning when set in a pearl and diamond ring, are South Sea and Tahitian pearls. South Sea gemstones are quite large and seen in white or gold colors, while Tahitian pearls are farmed in a range of colors from red and black to blue and green. They can vary greatly in shape, and both are rarer and more expensive than Akoya pearls. They each stand out dramatically when contrasted with diamond settings.
There are no variety distinctions among freshwater pearls, which are easy to find in many different and interesting shapes, and usually grow in white or pastel colors with less luster than saltwater stones. The major differences in freshwater gemstones have to do with the qualities used to judge all pearls.
Unfortunately, though, there’s no standard system for valuing pearls. Many jewelers have their own grading scale; a typical one runs from AAA to A (with AAA the highest grade). The factors taken into consideration are shape (the closer to round, the better), luster and reflection, color (surprisingly, pink pearls are more valuable than white ones), surface blemishes, nacre thickness (thicker is better) and if you’re buying a piece with more than one pearl, how well the stones match. Size, of course, also plays a large role.
You may immediately think of pearl-stranded necklaces or bracelets when picturing these beautiful gems, but pearl engagement rings and pearl wedding rings have become quite popular now that many women are looking for non-traditional bridal jewelry. A pearl and diamond ring, for example, carries the elegant, feminine look of a pearl ring while having the sparkle of a more traditional engagement ring; using a pearl as the center stone in a pavé or channel setting with small diamonds conveys the significance of the piece while highlighting an unusual, beautiful pearl. Even if you don’t opt for the flash of a pearl and diamond ring, a single lustrous pearl in a solitaire setting will guarantee a look of sophistication and style for your pearl engagement ring.
Wedding rings are usually bands – and it is difficult to set larger pearls into a band. However, brides and grooms looking for something unusual sometimes choose pearl wedding rings featuring a circle of tiny pearls around the band. One fascinating alternative to consider is matching a pearl engagement ring with a mother-of-pearl wedding ring. The iridescent look of mother-of-pearl can provide a striking counterpoint to the luster of the stone in a pearl engagement ring, and will certainly be the focus of any fashion discussion.
Pearl rings, needless to say, have been popular for years as cocktail pieces. One which will garner plenty of attention at any gathering is the black pearl ring. The most desirable – and expensive – black pearl ring features a black cultured Tahitian pearl. There are cheaper alternatives you can consider, though. “Enhanced black” cultured pearls are white pearls which have either been irradiated, or put through a process called “French dying” which ensures that the dye lasts for years. Either way, the pearl in a black pearl ring is real and stunning – and the black gem can be even more striking if used as a center stone in a pearl engagement ring.
Whether cultured or natural, pearls are beautiful but extremely delicate. Pearl rings require more care than most other stones; they should never be worn in any environment where they could be accidentally bumped or scratched, nor should they be exposed to water, perfume, hairspray, soap, other cleaners or chemicals. It’s best to remove your pearl ring when doing household chores, gardening or playing sports, and it should always be cleaned gently with a damp cloth and then wrapped in satin cloth when you take it off. Never use a toothbrush or an ultrasonic cleaner.