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Pearls: Beauties of the Deep

Hailing from 10,000 leagues under the sea, Pearls are renowned for their beauty– their name synonymous with something rare, fine, admirable and valuable. Prized by European royalty, such as by George Villiers– 1st Duke of Buckingham (1600’s) and Queen Margherita of Italy (1880’s), pearls were actually purveyed far before Europe’s tastes began including high jewelry. Thousands of years of documented history point to all corners of Asia having found and excavated pearls, from Prince Vijaya of India in 500 BC to the Han Dynasty in China (206 BC–220 AD) and even the famed Kuwaiti divers of the 15th Century.

 

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Famously formed inside the shells of underwater mollusks, such as oysters, they are actually formed to protect the animal from irritants and parasites, though the byproduct is prized by gem collectors worldwide. Originally found in wild mollusk shells, Pearls are now sustainably farmed and cultured, as natural pearl fishing is often unsustainable.

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Most of the pearls seen in the market today are cultured pearls, farmed sustainably with modern practices. Natural freshwater pearls, however, are increasingly rare and of superlative value. Pierre Cartier of the eponymously-named “Cartier” purchased the Fifth Avenue mansion that remains the New York Cartier flagship store in exchange for a matched double strand of natural pearls that was valued at US$1 million back then. The “La Peregrina Pearl”, previously owned by figures such as Napoleon and Philippe II of Spain, was purchased by actor Richard Burton for wife/actress Elizabeth Taylor in 1969 for $37,000. It was sold in 2011 for a whopping $11.8 Million USD. Other high-end pearl jewelry, such as the grey “Cowdray Pearls” necklace which sold for $5.3 Million USD in 2015, continue to be prized by connoisseurs for their rarity, beauty and ultimate value. 

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Pearls are valued based on their rarity, though there are factors of quality that factor in, as is such with other precious gemstones. The measures of pearl quality are size, shape, and luster, with luster the most defined of these factors. Luster is defined as a “soft, milky glow”, and is a hard concept to teach to novice pearl collectors. While size, shape and luster help the market determine pearl values, natural saltwater pearls are of the highest caliber, though natural freshwater pearls are also in high demand. Cultured pearls comprise nearly all of today’s pearls, and while not quite as sought-after as natural untreated pearls, cultured pearls remain quite valuable if their quality is high. 

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Also known as a metaphor for fine, rare, beautiful and prized, Pearls are aptly-named and have remained one of the most popular “gemstones” used in fine jewelry since antiquity. Through responsible practices, pearls have become more attainable as sourcing has become more sustainable. Natural pearls are among the most highly regarded gems, and their immense value figures to increase as natural pearls become increasingly rare.