The gentle and elegant melding of colours and the beautiful sheen that no other can match commands attention. History is brimming with stories of the myth, beauty and value they carry. Thanks to their mysterious origins, they were assigned magical properties and for a long time, they were the privilege of aristocrats and royals.
Pearls come from great depths, they are small and usually perfectly spherical; their “birth” requires the safety provided by the hard shell of an oyster and a single grain of sand.
Only about 20 species of oysters, out of 8000 species of bivalves there are in the world, can produce pearls under specific conditions. In nature, the process occurs completely spontaneously. All bivalves are passive feeders, waiting for tiny pray to come to their mouths carried by the water. When this happens, they open their valves, their only shield – and in that process, occasionally, a grain of sand or some other unwanted piece of debris can fall inside. Some bivalves, like oysters (Ostrea) will then secrete a pearly material called nacre, which coats the inner membranes of their valves. If the process proceeds for a number of years, a pearl is formed. Nacre is secreted from the mantles and serves to protect their gentle bodies from being scratched by the sand. It is comprised of calcium carbonate, similar to chalk. Calcium carbonate is a powdered, white, water insoluble salt. It sounds incredible, but the pearl comprises, in its centre, only a single grain of sand or some other foreign object or being that happened to find themselves inside the bivalve by accident. It is quite understandable that the pearls created by oysters spontaneously, by the described process, were quite rare. The fact that they had to be fished out from the depths of the sea just added to their exclusivity.
Pearls are highly valued as jewellery, appreciated for their translucence and the delicate dance of the colours on their surface. They are usually made into necklaces, bracelets and earrings. The closer the pearl is to a true sphere and the deeper its sheen – the greater its value. The shape doesn’t have to be perfect, but the most valuable ones are those that are either perfect spheres or tear-shaped, which are quite rare. The colour of the pearl depends on the oyster and its environment. They can be black or white, as well as any shade in between; but there are also pink, blue, yellow, green and purple pearls. Jewellers of the 16th and 17th century often used “baroque” pearls of irregular shapes, mantle-tissue nucleated, in building animal shapes and other figures. In Europe and China, pearl oysters were used as material for inlays during furniture decoration.
Ohrid pearls, made by only a few families in Macedonia, are world-renowned and highly appreciated. Ohrid pearls are made from the mother-of-pearl from the shells, polished into a sphere. The polished bead is coated in a special emulsion, derived from the scales of the fish plashica, which is endemic to Ohrid lake. The recipe for the emulsion is a secret, passed down from father to son.
At a time when men started wearing diamonds and other gems, pearls became the last ally that women had left in their beauty routine, differentiating them from men. Women like Eva Peron, Maria Callas, Jacqueline Kennedy, Coco Chanel, Jovanka Broz and princess Diana remain the most famous promoters and fans of pearl jewellery. The Chanel look is still unimaginable without a string of white pearls worn close around the neck. Their discrete beauty clearly declares, for all the world to see, your status and wealth. Pearls are a symbol of health and purity; poetry compares tears to pearls and epic poems frequently describe the beauty of young women by saying that “their teeth were like a string of pearls”. Old folk’s tales warn against wearing pearl rings. A broken string of pearls, a scene in many a film, symbolizes some kind of a disaster, anger or wastefulness; still, you have to admit, even as they are falling to the floor, these beads of glamour seem special and elegant. Pearl extract, or pearl powder, has found some applications in cosmetics. Mihajlo Filev, a producer of Ohrid pearls, wrote the following on his certificate that he gives out with his pearls: “Please avoid spraying perfume over your pearls”. In our slang, “a pearl” is a lapse or a silly statement, but in its original meaning, it was meant to describe a good thought, statement, or work of literature of extraordinary value. In a broader meaning, the word is used to describe something precious or special. Never forget, “don’t cast pearls before swine”.