What do Benedict XVI, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth II, model Heidi Klum, and Mr and Mrs Jones have in common? Well, the answer is that they all love to wear jewellery. This desire to adorn the body has existed as long as Homo sapiens have been on the Earth. It applies to ecclesiastical dignitaries as well as to monarchs or to your average Mr and Mrs Jones. Adorning in various ways, with precious fabrics, precious metals, precious stones or with pearls is simply a way of life.
To possess genuine pearls was the privilege of the rich and powerful until well into the 19th century. A drop from a pearl oyster was (and still is) rare and valuable, making it a very desirable object. In those days pearls were not only used for necklaces, bracelets, brooches and rings, but more frequently than today, they were twisted into the hair, sewn onto clothes, hats, oriental turbans and gowns for decoration or were used as buttons. In the Middle Ages they adorned magnificent book covers, reliquaries and royal caskets. In short, everything that was to be enhanced in spiritual value, social prestige, or aesthetic appeal was done so with pearl.
In view of the price of pearls, people at that time sought affordable alternatives. In the 17th century a rosary manufacturer from Paris discovered that the sticky material on fish scales could be used to coat glass beads. This gave them a certain pearly shimmer. Then, in the 19th century the Japanese invented the cultured pearl bringing an end to the upper-class exclusivity of pearl jewellery. However, for many the breakthrough for pearls as reasonably priced jewellery came about 100 years ago and the demand for pearls increased rapidly in the European capitals. Eduard Hugo Heusch, a German engineer who had emigrated to France, worked in Paris on a process to manufacture artificial pearls and eventually founded a company that he later transferred to Manacor in Mallorca to produce his “Majórica” pearls.
The pearls of “Majórica” are often equated with Mallorca pearls in general. The name Mallorca pearl, though, is an indication of country of origin referring to all artificial pearls made in Mallorca and manufactured in basically the same way. When the patent of the founder family ran out in 1948 numerous manufacturing firms were opened. Today seven companies compete in the production of artificial pearls on the sunny island. The ingredients of the essence for coating the pearls vary from firm to firm and are well kept secrets.
In the production of a pearl a polymerisation process is used. Firstly, a tiny artificial core consisting of white opaque glass, crystal or a seashell is fastened onto a special support. This nucleus is then immersed into a mother-of-pearl mixture, taken out, dried, and immersed again up to 40 times. In each of these operations the pearl is covered with another extremely thin layer which is heated with a gas burner so that the molecules of the sea water mixture amalgamate to form larger molecules. Despite its name, the mother-of-pearl mixture does not consist of crushed nacre, but rather of small marine animal particles such as mussel sand or fish scales (as used by the rosary manufacturer more than 200 years ago). Finally, the pearl is polished and covered with a special varnish ready to be sold with a 10 year guarantee assuring its high quality. Coloured minerals can also be added to the bath to give the pearls any desired colour and shade.
The surface is smooth and has a harder and therefore more robust surface than natural pearls so neither perspiration, make-up, perfume, heat nor cold can damage it. In fact only an expert can tell the difference between a natural pearl and a Mallorca pearl, an expert such as Claude Camand Glandut, sales manager of “Perlas Orquídea” in Montuiri. He can see and feel straight off whether a pearl comes from an oyster or from a laboratory. If you want to see for yourself, visit the Perlas Orquídea company where, next to their factory, there is more than 2000 square metres of exhibitions and sales offering 15,000 different models of first class quality pearl jewellery.
Whether natural, cultivated or imitation – pearls are sensory. Genuine and cultivated pearls are a bit cooler to the touch than a Mallorca pearl, their surface is a little more delicate. The Mallorca pearl is as pleasant on the skin as a genuine pearl and takes on the body’s heat. While nature very rarely brings forth completely round pearls, the polymerisation process facilitates their mass production. Lovers of genuine pearls, however, point out that the uniqueness of the oyster pearl is irreplaceable and its magic can never be obtained by imitations. Coco Chanel is quoted as having a completely different view: “Uniqueness is destined to be copied.” Only few women could afford her Haute Couture with the original label but she had no objection to imitations. In fact, she supported the development of democratizing fashion in the 20th century and began integrating fashion jewellery as a component of her clothes. Gold chains and pearls were her most treasured fashion accessories. Pure pearl necklaces, to be worn with a gown or plain black dress, were the perfect example of elegance over the decades.
For a while pearls had a very conservative image as elderly schoolteachers and female law and business administration students used to wear them in single-row necklaces with traditional twinsets. In Germany these students were often nicknamed “pearly chicks”. But pearls have long since cast off their conservative “pearly chick” image. What remains is the association with a certain distinguished elegance – whether it comes from natural pearls, cultured pearls, or high-quality imitation pearls from Mallorca.
Variety of Pearls
One of the most famous pearls, almost perfectly pear-shaped, is a silver pearl of 50.26 carats known as “La Pelegrina”. Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor was given it as a present from Hollywood megastar Richard Burton during their marriage. Rumour has it that unfortunately her pet dog got hold of it and inflicted irreparable damage by chewing it.
Originally, this pearl was formed like every genuine pearl, in a natural way without human interference. In the natural process some minute foreign substance such as a larva, a piece of coral, or a grain of sand happens to get into the body of the mussel. The mussel activates its defence mechanisms: First it endeavours to expel the intruder. If it does not succeed, it exudes calcium carbonate and conchiolin from its own body coating the foreign body with layer after layer of the mixture in concentric circles. It may take up to 10 to 15 years to form a pearl as large as a pea. Then divers have to go to depths of up to 20 metres to fish it out. The largest pearl in the world was found in the Persian golf in the 17th century and was made into a crown jewel for a Chinese empress. It is 7.5 x 5 cm large and pear-shaped. Together with more pearls and pink jadeite it was worked into a piece of jewellery and is supposedly kept in a bank safe in London. The owner is unknown.
To produce cultured pearls one or more foreign particles are implanted into the oyster. It is then put back into the sea or into freshwater, depending on the species of mussel. There it reacts to the foreign body in the same way as its fellow creatures that remain untouched by man’s hand.
For imitation pearls little beads are coated with substances made of components completely different from mother-of-pearl. The so-called Antilles pearls, though, are covered with a pressed pearl-substance.
The Value of Pearls
The value of a pearl depends on the combination of its colour, size, perfection, and symmetry. Another crucial factor is the pearl lustre, an intense glow emanating from within the pearl as a result of good nacre quality. The range of beautiful pearl colours varies from white, pink, gold, bronze or lavender, to grey or black. Different species of oysters produce different colours. The black or greenish black south sea pearls, for example, obtain high prices worldwide.
Pearls also vary very much in shape: they can be perfectly round, nearly round, oval, pear-shaped, or any shape in-between. The most prized are the perfectly round pearls while the pear-shaped pearls generally obtain the largest size.
The size leads to a certain weight that is generally measured in carats on the European market. (Not to be confused with the gold carat, a unit used to measure the gold content of gold jewellery). A carat here is 0.2 grams.
Tips for the proper care of pearls
Leave them alone is the first piece of advice. Pearls should be stored away from other objects or jewellery that may scratch the pearls’ surface. Wrap the pearls in linen, soft cloth, or place them in a soft pouch. Mallorca pearls are more durable, so heat, cosmetics, oil, chlorine, bleach or sea water do not affect them as much as they do natural or cultured pearls.
All pearls can be wiped with a damp cloth and a little alcohol to remove dirt and perspiration. If you do not want to use alcohol wash your pearls every three to four months in lukewarm water with mild soap (not detergent) and a soft cloth. When finished washing the pearls, rinse them in clean water and wrap them in a thin, damp cotton towel to dry at room temperature. They will then delight you again with their exquisite beauty and their delicate lustre on your skin.