- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The luster of pearls has enchanted people for ages, says Jeffrey Post, curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Northwest.

“Each one is a treasure,” Mr. Post says. “You don’t have to cut them. You don’t have to polish them. That’s part of the romance with them.”

“The Allure of Pearls,” a special exhibit at the museum, will be open until Sept. 5. Some of the world’s greatest natural and cultured pearls are featured in the display.

Pearls usually are created when a shell fragment, rock or parasite lodges inside a mollusk, says Jerry Harasewych, curator of invertebrate zoology at the museum.

Although surrounding conditions, such as the composition and temperature of the water, can have an effect on the pearl as it is made, the animal creates the stone. As a form of protection, the oyster coats an irritant with nacre, which gives pearls their luster. The color of the pearl usually mirrors the shell. Pearls are made in a range of colors, including white, silver, cream, gold, pink, green, blue and black.

Although any mollusk can create a pearl, some of the gems are more spectacular than others, says Mr. Harasewych, who holds a doctorate in biological oceanography. In addition to clams and oysters, snails and cracked conch can develop pearls.

“The Chesapeake oyster that everybody eats has been known to produce pearls,” Mr. Harasewych says. “When you get steamed clams, you might find a pearl in them, but it wouldn’t look anything like the pearls that are commercially produced.”

Because natural irritants aren’t usually spherical, round pearls rarely form naturally, he says. The mollusks used for pearl production are collected from lakes and rivers. When they are 7 to 10 years old, they receive an irritant at a pearl farm, which becomes the nucleus of the pearl. The irritant is often a small sphere cut from the shell of another mollusk. Depending on the type of mollusk, it could take up to five years to create a pearl.

The “Paspaley Pearl,” harvested off Australia in 2002, is the only cultured pearl in the Smithsonian exhibit. It is highly valued for its large size, 50 percent larger than most large South Seas pearls.

Since the introduction of the cultured pearl in the early 1900s by Japanese inventor Kokichi Mikimoto, pearls have been made available to the average person, says Gina Latendresse, president of the American Pearl Co. in Nashville, Tenn. For the Smithsonian display, the company is lending “Survival,” a purple-pink freshwater pearl from the Tennessee River, and “Black Beauty,” a button-shaped pearl from South America.

Although the American Pearl Co. started the only commercially successful cultured pearl farm in the United States, at the Bird Song Resort and Marina in Camden, Tenn., its specialty is collecting natural pearls. Most natural pearls are irregular in shape and typically white in color, Ms. Latendresse says.

“My father, John Latendresse, was an icon in the pearl industry,” Ms. Latendresse says. “He collected natural pearls for 50 years. He would see fishermen and give them his business card. Sometimes he would get a call once a week or once a month. There were never any divers that worked for us.”

After Mr. Latendresse became an expert in natural pearls, the Japanese challenged him to produce cultured pearls, Ms. Latendresse says. Her father engineered a freshwater pearl from a mussel, which has a different anatomy from that of the Japanese pearl-bearing oyster.

Although many beautiful cultured pearls have been engineered, “La Peregrina,” or “The Pilgrim,” which is featured in the Smithsonian exhibit, is a superb example of a natural pearl, says Mr. Post, who holds a doctorate in mineralogy.

Discovered by a slave in the Gulf of Panama in the mid-16th century, the pear-shaped gem eventually made its way to Queen Mary Tudor. King Phillip II of Spain gave it to her as a wedding present.

Later, other Spanish royals enjoyed the gem. The Bonaparte family in France acquired the stone until the son of French Emperor Napoleon III sold it to the British Marquis of Abercorn.

Most recently, in 1969, actor Richard Burton bought the gem for $37,000 as a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. The stone is now set in a diamond, ruby and pearl necklace, which is on loan for the exhibit from Miss Taylor.

“You get a dress made for the necklace,” Mr. Post says. “Then, you wear your hair up so you don’t hide any of the necklace.”

Among the other stunning natural pearls in the exhibition is the “Pearl of Asia,” Mr. Post says. It is the largest known natural pearl, originating from the Persian Gulf. In the 1600s, Indian Emperor Prince Khurram, who built the Taj Mahal, gave the stone to his wife. Today, the oblong-shaped pearl is part of a private collection in Europe.

Although perfectly round cultured pearls are prized today, years ago, naturally grown odd-shaped pearls were considered highly valuable as nature’s perfect creation, Mr. Post says.

Another elongated pearl in the exhibit is the “Hope Pearl,” once owned by Henry Philip Hope, a London banker in the early 1800s. Hope also owned the Hope Diamond, which is housed at the National Museum of Natural History as well.

When buying pearls — particularly because pearls are June’s birthstone — there are a few factors that should be considered, says Robert Cepek, president of Iridesse Pearls in New York City. The company sells pearls ranging in price from $100 to $50,000. It is one of the sponsors of the Smithsonian exhibit.

Size, shape, luster, color, surface quality and nacre quality are important, he says. When buying a strand of pearls, whether the pearls match should be noted.

“People have always loved pearl,” Mr. Cepek says. “It’s really a wonder of nature. There’s a magic to it that has always interested mankind.”

The gems continue as iconic symbols of wealth and prestige, says Jeremy Shepherd, owner of PearlParadise.com, located in Santa Monica, Calif. The Web site is the largest online retailer of pearls in the United States.

Legends have surrounded the stones for centuries, he says. Records in China suggest that pearls were prized possessions as early as 2300 B.C.. They are referred to in the Bible in the passage, “Do not cast your pearls before swine.”

Over the years, some people believed pearls were tears from God, he says. Others stories suggested that the oysters traveled to the surface of the ocean in the middle of the night. Supposedly, when they opened their shells, they would collect drops of dew that would form pearls.

“A lot of people say that pearls are the next diamond,” Mr. Shepherd says. “Pearls have never been unpopular.”

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