Birthstone Friday — Pearls: Go Big, Go Wild

This lustrous rare natural abalone pearl inspired Eve Alfillé to create her “Calla Lily” platinum pendant in the Art nouveau style. The 14.40 carat abalone pearl is studded with emeralds, diamonds and natural alexandrite to echo the color playin the pearl. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

If you haven’t noticed this month, I can’t get enough of pearls: the shapes, the colors, the sensuality of them. Probably the most romantic gemstone of them all.

Some of the most gorgeous pearls come from one of the most exotic places on Earth: Tahiti. These are some of the most striking pearls, not only for their color, but for their often immense size. The warm waters of the South Pacific means they grow quickly, and the large size of the oysters used to culture them means they can hold a much larger starter bead. They are some of the biggest pearls on the market. If you want to make a statement, go Tahitian!

Probably the best known are the gloriously iridescent black Tahitian pearls. And guys, take note. If you secretly love pearls, these are the gemstones for you! The Tahitian pearl people, many years ago, had a campaign that featured single black pearls on cords or chains for men. I have no idea why it didn’t catch on because oh, my goodness, fellows, let me tell you. That look was sex walking!

But I digress.

There are also subtly colored Tahitians: cream, gray, peach, and even chocolate.

This pin, titled “Orbiting,” features a lovely carved quartz by famed lapidary Dieter Lorenz, as well as a golden South Seas pearl, all accented by a diamond and set in 14 karat gold. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

But Tahitians aren’t the only heavyweights in the pearl world. South Seas pearls, farmed in Australia, Philippines, and Indonesia, are also big beautiful gems worth salivating over. Some of my favorite are the golden South Seas pearls, yellow being my favorite color. Hmmm. Maybe this is why I love Eve’s “Orbiting” pin.

But for sheer drama and color, look for the abalone pearls. These cultured pearls are usually formed by attaching a half round bead to the abalone shell and letting it do its work. Later, the blister formed can be cut from the shell and used as a half round in jewelry. But more often, the blisters are cut out and an area of the shell is cut with it to create some amazing freeform shapes. They’re like small Rorschach tests for jewelry designers who love working with them.

Indulge your sense of drama. Go big and go wild with pearls.

American Pearls: Finding a Home

When John Latendresse established the American Pearl Company, in Camden, Tennessee, he knew that water quality would be vital for mussel survival and pearl culturing. The water temperature has to be just right, and that means the depth of the water has to be right. Too shallow, as during drought years, and mussels will die in the overheated water. There has to be a steady flow of water bringing food and oxygen to the mussels, so ponds are usually not suitable. To find the perfect spot, John Latendresse spent nine months investigating 300 bodies of water, studying daily weather charts from the areas, and experimental farms. His daughter Gina Latendresse, now president of the American Pearl Company, remembers that at one of her father’s experimental ponds early on, a guard would take a power boat out onto the water, driving it in large circles so that the propeller could churn life-giving oxygen into the water.

The perfect spot on Kentucky Lake turned out to be only 20 miles from their home. It was her father’s only convenience in 20 years of research and development, says Gina Latendresse. 

Today, the main pearl farm is next to the Birdsong Resort, Marina and Campground. As that guard so many years ago, the boats on the lake benefit the mussels by keeping the water churning with oxygen, and pushing plankton toward the mussels where they hang in nets from PVC pipe incubating their pearls. In exchange, the pearl farm provides a tourist attraction drawing people to the resort

At first the family worried that the resort might create difficulties for the mussels with exhaust and gas. However, the risk of a boat spilling oil or gas into the water, says Latendresse, has proven to be minimal. “The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) are very up on keeping the lakes and rivers from being polluted,” says Latendresse.

However, water pollution has always been a concern at the American Pearl Company, because the farms are located on public, not private waters. Water quality is subject to the activities on land (as Japanese pearl farmers discovered to their cost). One experimental farm in Tennessee was destroyed in the early 1980s when unusually heavy rains flushed agricultural farm chemicals into the water of the pearl farm. The chemicals, just applied to the farmland, were at full strength, and the entire crop of mussels died as well as all the fish and amphibians in the water.

The pearl farm has found other ways to be a good neighbor, too. Gina Latendresse there is always someone concerned about the fact that the mussels are killed in the process of pearl farming. She explains that only adult mussels are taken from the wild. They are then kept for three to five years in nets, during which time they reproduce. As part of their reproductive cycle, immature mussel spat (more correctly called Glochidiae) attach to the gills of fish for the first year of their lives. Because of this, she says, the mussels in the nets are more likely to produce viable offspring as, by floating down through the water from the nets, the chances are greater of the spat finding a place on a fish’s gills. Mussels in the wild must eject the spat up into the water from the mud at the bottom of the river in order for the spat to attach to fish gills.

While the mature mussel is sacrificed when the pearls are harvested, “there is almost no waste,” says Latendresse. “The shell is used in inlay or to make more beads to use in culturing.  Some of the left over mother-of-pearl is ground into pearl powder that is used in cosmetics. The mussel meat itself is used as fish bait and feed for pigs.”

One of Gina Latendresse’s favorite stories is about the pigs. When the mussel meat starts to decompose, it creates a “powerful stench.” (In fact, when her father died in 2001, they received a letter of condolence from a man who said he always connected the vacations his family took nearby with the smell of rotting mussels.) The problem was to find a use for the meat as well as the other parts of the mussel. John Latendresse contacted a local pig farmer and offered the meat as feed. The farmer took it. Later the farmer called her father euphoric: the meat had produced the biggest, fattest pigs he’d ever raised. A few weeks later, however, he was incensed. The meat of the pigs, he said, tasted like fish and it smelled like fish when it was cooked. He had to feed his pigs on grain for three months before butchering them to rid the pork of the smell and taste of mussels.

 

Birthstone Friday–Pearls: Getting Fresh

This lovely freshwater pearl accented by diamonds and set in a 14k gold pin titled, “In the Cloud,” allows artist Eve Alfillé, to indulge her imagination. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery and Studio Evanston, Illinois.

Are you a June baby who doesn’t like her birthstone? Do you still think your only choices are your grandmother’s pearls—the Queen’s pearls—round, white and boring?

Nope. Not true anymore. In fact, if you like wild colors and shapes, take another look at pearls.

Pearls have always been found in non-round shapes and colors other than white, cream. In fact, when there were only natural pearls in the world—those made without the encouragement of a human hand—round pearls were the rarities. Natural pearls form when something gets inside a mollusk—say a small parasite bores through the shell—and irritates the animals tender flesh. They begin to cover the invader with nacre, the same material that lines the inside of the mollusks shell, and that we know as “mother-of-pearl.”

The coating process isn’t an exact science, of course, so the pearls formed could come out any color, any shape, highly nacreous, or utterly meh.

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Gemstone Care — Be Gentle With Your Pearls

If June is your birth month, and you love pearls (as I hope you do), treat them gently. Pearls are not as rugged as their crystal mineral counterparts. Made up of layers of tiny crystals of aragonite, they’ll scratch, fracture, discolor, and dissolve if not treated with loving kindness.

“The Nightlife II.” Freshwater pearls, peridot, tourmaline. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfille Gallery, Evanston, Illinois.

  • Never wear pearls when exercising; perspiration can attack them. They don’t like household chemicals, either. Never wear them swimming in a pool. (If Cleopatra’s pearls dissolved in wine, just think what chlorine can do to them.)
  • Don’t wear them if you’re doing work where they’ll come into sharp contact with hard surfaces. A bracelet constantly thwacking on a desk or filing cabinet can only harm the pearls.
  • Put them on after you’ve applied your makeup and perfume. Wipe them down with a soft cloth after you take them off to remove the pigments and alcohol that can damage them.
  • Store them in a soft cloth bag to protect them from scratching by the other jewelry in your box (drawer, suitcase, steamer trunk).
  • Give them a gentle bath, periodically, if you wear them often, and lay them out to dry thoroughly. Do not hang pearl strands up—the string can stretch.
  • If you wear pearl strands frequently, inspect them regularly, and have them restrung periodically.
  • Knots between the pearls protect them from rubbing against each other at the fragile drill hole. Knotting also prevents loss should the strand break. You’ll only be scrambling around on the airport floor looking for one pearl, not dozens. Because Mrs. Murphy says that if your pearl strand is going to break, it’ll break at the most inconvenient place and time possible.

Pearls: Born in the USA

Think pearls and you think Asian pearl divers and Japanese cultured pearls. Perhaps you think of Indian Moguls or rich belles dames from the glittering age of the turn of the century. But it’s a good bet you don’t think of the quiet backwaters of the Tennessee River. But you should. Pearls are an all American classic.

In 1954, John R. Latendresse founded the Tennessee Shell Company in Camden, Tennessee for the purpose of exporting American freshwater mussel shells to Japan. In Japan, the shells were shaped into beads to be used as the nuclei in cultured pearls; at one point, the company shipped as many as 23 tons of mussel shells to Japan to feed the booming cultured pearl business. Latendresse eventually became involved with importing Japanese and Chinese pearls and selling them.

Inevitably Latendresse became convinced pearls could be cultured in the waters of Tennessee. After all, many mollusks produce pearls and pearls had been found for centuries hidden in the meat of freshwater mussels. Native Americans found and treasured them long before Europeans landed on the eastern shore. Thousands of pearls of all qualities had been found as a by-product of the mother-of-pearl button business. If pearls formed naturally, reasoned Latendresse, he should be able to culture them, and in 1961, Latendresse formed the American Pearl Company to do just that. His daughter, Gina Latendresse, now president of the American Pearl Company, once remarked the location was “not the pristine, clear blue waters of Tahiti with half naked women diving for pearls, rather it’s the muddy rivers of Tennessee. A little bit less romantic, but maybe more intriguing.”

While the Mississippi River and its tributaries (such as the Tennessee River) and Kentucky Lake, contain an estimated 300 species of mollusks, explains Gina Latendresse, her father discovered that not all of them will allow pearl culturing. Only 24 species are viable, and “only one we tested out of the 24 was best suited to our needs.” The freshwater mussels’ anatomy was different than pearl oysters, so Japanese culturing techniques wouldn’t work, either. After studying the differences in anatomy, John Latendresse and his wife, Chessy, developed new surgical techniques designed especially for the mussels.

Although John Latendresse had developed good relations with the Japanese pearl-culturing companies, says his daughter, the Japanese were not happy to find out her father was trying to culture pearls. “They knew the southeast had lots of water and possibilities for pearl culture. They were a little fearful. They asked my father, ‘What are you doing? This is part of Japanese history and heritage.’ My father was quiet for a moment, then said, ‘Henry Ford was part of our heritage and history, but look what the Japanese have done with that idea.’ My father said later, ‘It was so quiet you could hear a pearl drop.’” After 20 years and five million dollars spent in research and development, John Latendresse harvested the first marketable American cultured pearls in 1983; two years later, he began cultivating on a large scale.

Then in the mid-1990s, says Latendresse, “We got a call…saying that the president of Mikimoto [the huge Japanese cultured pearl company] was coming to the US and was interested in seeing our farm.  Eventually, Mikimoto became our biggest customer of American cultured and natural pearls. My father said, after that first visit, ‘Never in a million years, would I ever have guessed that I’d sell the Japanese American pearls.’ The Japanese buying from us was the most fulfilling moment for my father.”

When Gina Latendresse visited Japan after that, she was surprised to find that the pearls were being marketed as an American product, with a brochure explaining where they come from. “The brochure talks about these pearls being from the Tennessee River, a tributary of the Mississippi, which the Japanese know.” She bought a set of earrings designed by Mikimoto and containing pearls from her father’s company. She wore them at her wedding and they are still her favorite pair of earrings. The American classic had come home.

Birthstone Friday — Pearls: Gemstone of the Senses

The very definition of sensuality. A strand of graduated, round cultured Tahitian chocolate pearls with 18 karat white gold, diamond-set clasp. Photo by Matthew Arden, courtesy Eve J. Alfillé Gallery & Studio, Evanston, Illinois

Pearls. The birthstone for June. The most sensuous, the most glorious, the most feminine gemstone of all. Other gems have to be fashioned in some way, but pearls are perfect just as they are. They’re exquisite water-borne gifts of seas, lakes and rivers.

Pearls are an appropriate choice for one of the most luscious months of the year. Breezes scented with flowers and damp soil. Morning skies delicately colored like pearls. The soft touch of blossoms like the skin of pearls. Pearls, too, gratify all the senses.

Pearls just glow. They’re not flashy, like faceted gemstones. They’re simply quietly commanding. In the white to cream-colored oceanic oyster pearls most of us are familiar with, there is a translucency, a sense that you can almost, but not quite, see into them. This is especially true of natural pearls, the now-exceedingly-rare gems that were found in the mollusks of the Indian Ocean. I’ve only been lucky enough to see these as tiny seed pearls in antique jewelry. And perhaps it was because of their tiny size, but they seemed to hold light inside of them, like the nacre surface was just a shell surrounding tiny candles. Continue reading