• Antiques in Oxford

Pearl power


Pearls are back and sparking bidding wars in salerooms


In China, as early as 2300BC, pearls were considered as gifts for royalty. In the 1st Century BC, Julius Caesar decreed pearls could only be worn by the ruling classes. The discovery of pearls in Central and South America in the 15th and 16th Century led to the so-called ‘Pearl Age’ which sparked escalating demand in Western Europe. Ladies of nobility wore elaborate pearl necklaces, earrings, bracelets and brooches. So much so that demand for pearl jewellery was so high that oyster supplies began to dwindle.


How are pearls created?


A natural pearl forms when an irritant, such as a grain of sand, slips in between a molluscs shell and it mantle tissue. To protect itself from the irritant, the mollusc secretes layer upon layer of nacre. This is the iridescent material that eventually produces a pearl. For a natural pearl to develop 18mm in size it would take 10 years or longer.


The pearl is either attached to the interior of the shell (blister pearl) or formed within the body of the mollusc (mantle pearl). The sizes vary from a tiny seed pearl to the paragon pearl.


Colours vary depending on the water where the pearl was produced, ranging from pink to blackish. Some are artificially coloured. The finest specimens have a satin lustre.

In addition to the oyster, pearls can be produced by other molluscs and are generally named after the host. For example abalone pearl, clam pearl, conch pearl or mussel.


Cultured pearls


Cultured pearls were developed by the Japanese 20 year old Kokichi Mikimoto in 1878 who seeded a nucleus into a living oyster. These cultured pearls, promoted as ‘Mikimoto pearls’, took the UK and European jewellery market by storm with their shape, colour and lustre.

In 1921 the London Star reported that these pearls were so skilfully made that it was impossible to distinguish between them and natural pearls.



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