Last week I wrote about pearls in general. This week we take a look at natural pearls in particular. Natural pearls are just that - pearls that form without human interference.
Pearls have been mentioned as early as 2200 BC by the Chinese and found in Native American burial sites dating back to about 2000 BC. Historic sources for natural pearls include the Persian Gulf, Chinese rivers and lakes, the rives of Europe, and Ceylon. Columbus discovered rich pearl beds in the New World in the vicinity of Panama and Venezuela in 1498.
Natural pearls can be any shape, size and vary in color depending on environmental factors and the specied of pearl oyster that created them. Because they are comprised entirely of nacre, they tend to have a deeper lustre and better orient than their cultured counterparts.
This x-ray image shows no bead nucleus:
As opposed to this cultured pearl bearing a bead nucleus:
La Peregrina - the Wanderer
What do European queens and Elizabeth Taylor have in common? One of the largest, most symmetrical pear-shaped natural pearls in the world.
Found by an African slave in the Gulf of Panama, this pearl was given to Henry II of Spain who then presented it to Mary I of England as a wedding gift.
After her death, it returned to the Spanish crown jewels where it graced several Spanish queens for a couple centuries until it wandered off to France in the possession of a Bonaparte. It soon came onto the posession of the Hamilton family in England and remained there until 1969 when Richard Burton went to Sotheby's to get a little Valentine gift for Elizabeth Taylor.
Natural pearls still occur, of course. A number of factors converged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that effectively sidelined natural pearls as a driving force in the larger pearl market: pollution, oil, plastic buttons, and pearl culturing. Because of their price and irregularity, natural pearls often skipped over in favor of the more consistent cultured products.
You can see, even in this low-resolution image, that these pears are not round and they do not exactly match.