If you have your birthday in June, you are lucky enough to have pearl as your birthstone. Pearls are a fascinating gem, with many different varieties and without doubt they have led to the most pet-related incidents in my workshop!
I’ve been hunting for some deep-meaning philosopher’s quote about the finest jewel forming from the harshest irritant. But on this occasion I’ve failed. Never-the-less, this is what happens when a pearl is formed. Marine oysters and freshwater molluscs react to an irritant (usually a parasite) entering their shells by enrobing it, layer upon layer, with the calcium carbonate. This is the same material that forms the smooth insides of their shells (mother-of-pearl). The arrangement of this calcium creates the distinctive ‘nacre’ or surface which gives the pearl its beautiful reflective ‘orient’ – a soft glow, like moonlight.
Until the introduction of cultured (or farmed) pearls in the 1900s, oysters were pulled from the ocean and opened on the chance of finding a pearl. The risks of pearl diving and the low odds of finding a pearl led to them being one of the rarest and most prized gems in the world. Many of the finest pearls in history came from the Persian Gulf where the basic and brutal diving techniques remained the same for centuries. Divers would be sent out in boats before plunging to depths of 20 to 30 meters on a single breath of air. It was a dangerous job, and at one point done by slaves. The practice stopped when the farming of pearls became commercially viable, and when oil was discovered which shifted the focus of the area’s source of wealth.
The Romans were particularly fond of pearls. It was said that a battle could be paid for with a single pearl! Caligua even gave his horse a string of pearls to wear, but maybe he was a bit of a fruit cake! The Romans might have been wooed to Britain because of our beautiful freshwater river pearls. Sadly the river molluscs that produced these pearls were excessively hunted and became extinct in many places, environmental pollution also played a part in their decline.
Pearls come in many shapes, sizes and colours depending on the mollusc which has formed them and their environment. Pearl farms are sited in seas and freshwater lakes all over the world; Japan, China, Australia to name a few. Some pearls are naturally coloured such as the black and grey Tahitian pearls. South Sea pearls are shades of white and gold. Others are dyed and enhanced once they are harvested, so provide a rainbow to work with.
The farmed oysters are opened and a nucleus is planted inside the shell. Traditionally this was a round mother-of-pearl bead, but now-a-days anything goes. They are then returned to the water and left for several years to coat the bead with nacre and produce a pearl.
A string of pearls is traditionally created with a knot between each one. Pearls are very soft, and the knot means that they don’t rub and damage each other. Also, if the string breaks, there is only a chance of one pearl falling and getting lost. Because they are soft and porous, they need to be treated with care, Perfume, hairspray and chlorinated water will all damage their surface.
Pearl stringing involves first laying out the loose pearls in order on a tray. It was at this stage that I once knocked the tray and sent the pearls skittering onto the workshop floor. To my horror, my dog (a passionate food-driven collie) responded by chasing them frantically around the room – and eating them! Thankfully they were my own stock and not of huge value.
There was a scandal a few years back when it was discovered that the beard of Tutankhamun’s death mask had been knocked off and hastily glued back in place with Araldite in the hope no-one would notice. To fix pearls on rings and pendants we use a similar type of glue. They are wedged onto a pin which is part of the jewellery and stuck in place . As the Cairo Museum and my unlucky cat discovered, it is strong stuff!
I used to have a workshop at home – my ‘She Shed’ ! It was handy to work on designs and pieces for stock in the evenings and weekends whilst juggling life with three young children and rather a lot of pets.
One hot day I left the door open while I worked. I’d gathered a batch of pearls for gluing and mixed the glue on a plastic tray with a long bamboo barbecue skewer. The fixing went well, the rings and earrings were carefully placed aside to set while I did some other work. At the end of the evening, I noticed the cat had crept in and curled up on the far end of the workbench – on top of the glue tray! He woke, stretched, and headed for the door with a very unusual walk. The mixing tray and stick were firmly stuck to his hind leg! A very uncomfortable hour followed for both of us, but I managed to free him successfully, and from then on I always kept the door shut on the workshop.
He did not forgive me however, and every evening he would scrabble at the door in the hope to be let in. One night, he managed to flick the small twist locking bar on the outside of the doorframe to the horizontal position. When I finished and packed up to leave, I realised he’d locked me in! Dramatic scenarios raced though my mind – was I ever going to get out? Would I starve to death, surrounded by jewellery, imprisoned by my own cat? Eventually I had to break the door down to escape. I’m sure he had a smile on his face, but we had evened up and a truce was called!