Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 3, Issue 31, Tuesday March 14, 2006


string me a strand o'pearls

Here's a certain chora gaan whose first two lines go 'Chotto Kona Thekei Toh Hoi Golapi Mukto, Teeley Teeley Gorei Toley Taake Jhinukto'.

Indeed pearls, cherished as symbols of purity, perfection, elegance and affluence, are unusual gems created inside living animals called mollusks, primarily oysters.

The Latin word for pearl literally means 'unique', attesting to the fact that no two pearls are identical. It is the oldest known gem and you cannot deny that even now it is a highly, versatile accessory for a modern woman's wardrobe. Long strands of pearls may be doubled with the assistance of jeweled or gold clasps or can be twisted alone or with beads of other precious gems for a striking accent. And the classic, round pearl necklace is perfect for not just evening wear but also to top off that smart-career-woman look with an aura of trés chic.

Little Bit o' History…
Pearls have long captured our attention, with famous incidents marking its' rich and fascinating history, like the one that mentions how in 1916 the famed French jeweler Jacques Cartier, bought his landmark store on New York's famous Fifth Avenue by trading two pearl necklaces. But the most celebrated incident has to be the banquet given by Cleopatra, the last Egyptian queen, for the Roman leader Marc Antony. Cleopatra wagered Antony that she could give the most expensive meal ever provided and when the only thing placed in front of her was a vessel of sour wine (vinegar), Antony wondered how she'd be able to win the bet. Whereupon Cleopatra removed one of her pearl earrings reported to have been worth 10 million sesterces, the equivalent of thousands of pounds of gold and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl dissolved in the strongly acidic solution, and Cleopatra drank it down, winning her wager!

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the history of pearls reached a major turning point. At that time, a number of Japanese researchers discovered independently the techniques for 'stimulating' oysters to create pearls essentially 'on demand'.

The man who finally combined the various technical processes with business acumen and worldwide marketing know-how was Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a restaurateur. Today, Mikimoto is credited with having created almost single-handedly the worldwide cultured pearl industry, helping pearls historically the exclusive possessions of royalty and aristocracy become available to virtually anyone on the planet.

Rather than pearl divers hunting, often in vain, for the elusive, naturally formed pearls, pearl farmers could now cultivate thousands upon thousands of pearls in virtually the same way as a wheat or corn farmer grows his own crop. And pearl lovers throughout the world could reap the 'harvest'.

How a Pearl is Born…
An old Arab legend claims that pearls are formed when dew drops filled with moonlight fall into the ocean and are swallowed by oysters. The modern scientific explanation is not nearly as romantic but still quite fascinating.

A natural pearl forms when an irritant works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid, called nacre (also known as mother-of-pearl), which is the basic substance secreted by mollusks to form the inside of their shells. When nacre secretions are deposited around the irritant or foreign substance, they build up, layer by layer, to form a pearl. Nacre is composed of calcium carbonate (in a crystalline form) and conchiolin (an organic protein substance which provides bonding).

The specific luster, iridescence, and coloring of nacre and, therefore, of any pearl it forms depends on the number and thickness of the various layers, as well as on whether or not the layers overlap one another.

A cultured pearl undergoes the same process. The only difference is that the irritant is a surgically-implanted mother-of-pearl bead or piece of shell.

How to Measure a Pearl's Value…
The quality, and thus the value of a pearl, is measured according to a combination of several different factors:

The type of pearl: This is the most basic factor to consider whether the pearl is a freshwater pearl, a saltwater pearl, a South Sea pearl, etc. Each type is created by a different species of oyster, usually living in a different region of the world and under varying climatic conditions all of which have an impact on the characteristics of the resulting pearl. For example, freshwater pearls are characterized by the reflection of rainbow hues in the luster, while South Sea pearls are characterized by their large size (10-12 mm) and silvery colour.

The thickness of its nacre: Generally, the thicker the nacre, the more valuable the pearl.

The body colour and overtone: The pearl's body color is its main colour. This can be white, silver, cream-colored, gold, green, blue, or even black. The body colour is determined by the type of oyster or mollusk that produces the pearl, as well as the conditions of the water, and sometimes the type of nucleus which is implanted to stimulate the pearl's creation. Overtones are translucent colors which sometimes appear over top of the pearl's main body color allowing pearls in the same color category to have much different looks and hues, as well as adding depth and glow. A pearl may be white with rose overtones, for example. Some pearls have no overtones at all.

The luster
Essentially the reflective quality or brilliance of the surface of the nacre, the greater the luster, the more the pearl shines and reflects light and images (you should be able to see your reflection in them) and the more valuable it is. Pearls with less luster appear white or chalky.

The cleanliness and texture of its surface: This is very important to watch for when buying pearls. Some flaws or irregularities are almost certain to be found on any pearl. The way to judge the degree to which these imperfections may affect the value of the pearl is to examine how visible they are, and also whether they will affect the durability of the pearl.

Chips, gaps, or cracks in the pearl's surface are the most serious flaws and can cause the pearl to break or peel, thus destroying both its beauty and value. Less-serious are minor scratches or abrasions, which may affect small areas of the pearl's luster or color; small spots or variations in the pearl's coloring; and tiny bubbles or wrinkles on the pearl's surface. Irregularities such as these generally do not indicate a weakness in the pearl's structure and are often so small as to be virtually unnoticeable.

The shape Pearls come in a wide variety of shapes. There are oval shaped pearls. Button shaped pearls are flattened to some degree, making them resemble a button or perhaps a disk. There are drop pearls that are teardrop shaped. Semi-baroque and baroque pearls are non-symmetrical and irregular in shape. The most expensive are round or near-round pearls, because of their relative rarity and 'classic' nature.

The size
A pearl's size is measured according to its diameter in millimeters. Most pearls sold today are in the 7- to 7.5-millimeter range. Naturally, the larger the size of the pearl, the greater its value, all other factors being equal.

Where to Get Your Precious Possessions
Perhaps the most famous haunt for jewelry fashioned out of pearls in Dhaka…since my mother's time I imagine…has to be 'The Pearl House' at Sakura Market opposite Sheraton Hotel, with their elaborate collection of iridescent necklaces and bracelets, gorgeous pearl rings, brooches and pendants set on imitation silver. In addition, there are numerous shops situated on the 1st and 2nd floor at the DMC North Super Market near Gulshan 2 circle selling pearl jewelry and you can also go and scour the silver jewelry stores at Chadni Chawk.

Round, oval and button shaped pearls in natural pink, white and cream colors are most widely available because of their popular demand. Almost all the pearls are freshwater pearls locally cultivated near Chittagong, Mymenshingh, Sylhet, etc. While a few are imported from China, India and Japan. Price depends on size and quality.

In the case of locally cultured pearls, for example, the price of a standard 16 inch single strand neckpiece can range between Tk. 200-800 for 6 mm pearls, Tk. 400-800 for 7 mm pearls, and Tk. 600-1,200 for 8 mm pearls. Best part? Free matching ear tops with your neckpiece! Dyed pearls in blue, green, maroon, black, etc. will cost Tk. 50-60 more than the natural colored pearls.

Original black Tahitian Pearls are extremely rare (equaling extremely expensive) and hardly available here. So, those of you earning to have a more 'rare' neckpiece can go either for South Sea pearls or Biwa pearls. Biwa pearls are freshwater pearls cultured in the famous Lake Biwa of Japan, the price of which can range between Tk. 3,000-5,000 for a 16 inch single strand.

Telling Apart the Genuine From the Fake…
Imitation pearls are artificial 'pearls' made from glass, ceramic, shell, or even plastic, coated with varnish and/or other materials in order to produce a pearl-like luster and iridescence. A common test to determine whether a pearl is genuine or an imitation is to scrape the pearl gently across one's teeth. Imitation pearls feel smooth to the tooth, while genuine pearls feel slightly gritty or abrasive due to the crystalline structure of the nacre.

Tender Loving Care for Your Pearls…
Because pearls are organic, they are somewhat different from other gemstones and precious metals. They are softer, more delicate, and therefore can be more easily scratched, cracked, and damaged. Perfume, hair spray, even natural body oils and perspiration can cloud the pearls' brilliance. Apply perfume, hair spray, and other cosmetics before putting on your pearls, minimizing the amount of these products that come into contact with it. After wearing your pearls, wipe them with a soft damp cloth to remove any traces of cosmetic products or body oils. Wash the pearls periodically with a mild soap and a soft cloth, to remove any accumulated build-up.

Store pearls separately, away from hard jewelry items, to prevent scratches or other damage. If possible, store them wrapped in soft cloth or in a soft-lined container, pouch, or jewelry box. To prevent strand breakage, it's a good idea to have your pearls re-strung periodically perhaps once a year or so if you wear them often. Knotting the strand between each pearl will prevent all of the pearls from falling off the strand in the event the strand breaks. Also, knotting prevents the pearls from rubbing against one another and causing damage. A little bit of TLC can go a long way toward ensuring that your pearls remain safe and bright for years to come!

By Simin Saifuddin
Photo: Munem Wasif
Jewellery: Pearl Oasis, Navana Tower




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