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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Steve King on Pearls

Our fascination with pearls is thousands of years old—no other gem has been so loved, for so long, by so many. But is today’s pearl industry in danger of becoming a victim of its own success?

Much as they were treasured and admired, sought after and fought over, nobody knew for sure what pearls were until a little over a hundred years ago. In the absence of a scientific explanation, any number of pretty notions were put about. They were the tears of heaven, the eyes of spirits, raindrops filled with moonlight. Less poetically, though no less magically, most pearls form after a small parasite, such as a worm or a crab, dies inside an oyster shell. The proverbial grain of sand will occasionally do it too.

The process is the same for saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels. A foreign body enters the mollusc, which cannot get rid of it. To reduce irritation, it is coated with nacre, the same secretion the animal uses to grow its shell. Over time layers of nacre build up to form a pearl. They act as tiny light-reflecting prisms, giving pearls their lustre and, sometimes, the iridescent, soap-bubble quality known as “orient”. The Persian word for pearl, murwari, means “child of light”.


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