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A Look Back and Forward with Cultured Pearls

Have you ever wondered how pearls became the must have accessory for every well coiffed 1950’s housewife?

Pearls were at one time the most valuable gemstone in the world. They were the exclusive provenance of the wealthy and powerful, and sometimes even restricted to royal use. How did we come to associate them with Donna Reed?

A pearl is a natural phenomenon - a bit of calcium carbonate that a mollusk develops to isolate an irritant within its body. The occurrence is rare, and the chances of a diver finding a well formed pearl is even rarer. Naturally occurring pearls are still a truly uncommon treasure.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century the pearl market changed forever.

In 1890 in Japan, Kokichi Mikimoto began experimenting with cultivating pearls in saltwater mollusks, taking his inspiration from ancient Chinese techniques used on freshwater mussels.

After 25 years of work perfecting his technique, Mikimoto began large scale commercial production of cultured Akoya pearls in 1916. These more affordable pearls quickly rose in popularity domestically and his fledgling pearl production house was on the rise and thriving by the time Japan entered the war.

In the aftermath of World War II, Japan’s nascent cultured pearl industry was devastated.

When the Allied Forces occupied Japan after the war, the MacArthur Administration ordered the pearl industry to resume production. However, sales were restricted exclusively to the Central Office of American Supplies. The cultured pearls, expertly grown in Japan, could only be sold to American GI’s still stationed there or exported.

Graduated pearl strands became a favorite gift for soldiers returning from the war, and the American middle class went wild for them.

At my wedding, a strand of matched cultured pearls were my “something old”. I wore the same earring and necklace set that my mom wore at her wedding. These were an engagement gift to her from my father’s parents. It felt meaningful to wear this piece of history. But that’s precisely what pearls felt like to me - history.

Our family pearl "wedding set" on my mom at her wedding in 1966, and at our wedding in 2008.

To me pearls represented a throwback to a pre-feminist era.

But there was so much I didn’t know about them. In 2019, I took a course through the Cultured Pearl Association of America and became a “Certified Pearl Specialist”.

As I’ve learned more about these wondrously watery gems I’ve become enamored with their unique allure. Over 100 years after Mikimoto perfected pearl cultivation in Japan, there are now thriving cultured pearl farms around the world with a stunning array of varieties.

As far as gems go, pearls are very young - the babies of the gem world. Typically grown for 1-3 years inside a mollusk.

The classic graduated or matched strand of round white pearls only scratches the surface of the pearl world - both aesthetically and design-wise.

Pearls come in a range of colors - black, white, gray, gold, pink, blue - and overtones such as peacock or aubergine. The sought after round pearl is actually relatively rare. There are drops, ovals, semi-round, button, and baroque pearls. One of my favorites shapes is the “fireball”.

Clockwise from upper left: Blue Akoya Pearls, Pink freshwater pearl drops laid out for earrings, Sea of Cortez Mabe Pearls, Fireball Pearl, and South Sea Black Pearls in two shades sitting in a shell with blister pearl.

Because of their soft nature pearls require different care than the more durable gems. Pearl engagement rings have gained in popularity, but we would generally caution against a pearl in a daily wear ring as they are easily vulnerable to scratching and damage. Typical household products, like cleansers or cosmetics, could also damage a pearl.

On the other hand, pearls shouldn’t be locked away and go unworn. Because of their high water content they actually do best when exposed to the air and worn against the oils of the skin. Pearls stored in too dry an environment may actually crack.

This month on social media we’ll give you a real life demonstration of how to care for pearls as we share the care and restoration of my pearl wedding set so that we can pass it on intact to another generation.

Pearls are making a comeback, even those matched strands, as we saw during the inauguration of Vice-President Kamala Harris.

Reach out to start a conversation about adding pearls to your collection, whether as an accessory for a power suit or an updated take on a wedding set.



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