As I approached the glass case with its fabulous necklace I was greeted by a Christie’s expert. He may have assumed that I represented someone important and been sent as a scout. Otherwise why else would I be there? Little did he know! In any case, he had nothing to do at that particular moment other than chat with me. Yes, he confirmed, this was indeed the Gulf Pearl Set and yes, the necklace was the dominant element. Then, to my surprise, he happily unlocked the glass case and brought it out so I could get a closer look.
The necklace was stunning and utterly extravagant with multiple rows of diamonds and matched pearls. Most breath-taking of all were a series of large graduated teardrop-shaped pearls that hung from the bottom. What struck me most was their creamy glow which contrasted with the icy brilliance of the diamonds. The man explained that this particularly beautiful cream colour was common among pearls found in the Arabian Gulf and that the extraordinarily deep luster was due to the fact that these pearls were natural or “wild” not cultured.
Cultured pearls, the pearls we know today, are created by inserting a nucleus or bead made of glass, metal, plastic or shell into an oyster and then removing it in a couple of years after the oyster has had a chance to coat this object with a few millimetres of secretion or “nacre”.
Before the process for culturing pearls was developed the only pearls that existed were those found inside wild oysters that were collected from the seabed by men who dove for them. Not every wild oyster contained a pearl for pearls were the result of the reaction to a chance irritant, a minute piece of grit or a tiny parasite that had somehow made its way inside the oyster’s protective shell and which the oyster then walled off in self defense and coated in layer after layer of nacre. Starting from such a tiny, almost microscopic beginning it took many, many years for a natural pearl to grow. Large pearls were the work of several decades. Pearls the size of those found in the Gulf Pearl necklace were extremely rare. And because natural, wild pearls were composed of only the oyster’s translucent nacre right through to the very centre they had a depth of luster that couldn’t be equaled by their cultured rivals.
Moreover, in cultured pearls shape is largely determined by the shape of the nucleus inserted into the oyster. Round pearls these days seem perfectly ordinary to us but it wasn’t always so. Natural pearls being the result of chance creation came in all shapes and sizes. Perfectly round examples such as those found in the top rows of this Gulf Pearl necklace were happy exceptions, not the rule. What came to the surface in the diver’s basket was completely unpredictable, just the luck of the draw. Collecting together the beauties for the Gulf Pearl Set would have been a feat of perseverance and dedication. It would have taken many years of patient searching and plenty of money to find and buy pearls that harmonized so magnificently in size, shape, colour and quality.
Tentatively, I touched one of the fabulous teardrop-shaped pearls of the necklace and was surprised that it was very light. The pearl was so large and yet there seemed to be no substance to it. Yes, I was told, this was the way it should be. Nacre is very light. Only cultured pearls sometimes have weight. If they do it comes from their artificial cores. Especially if the nucleus is metal then the pearl will seem heavy.
At last the man returned the necklace to the glass case which he carefully locked. Somehow, under the lights once again, the necklace seemed to grow even larger, to become more dynamic to my eyes, the diamonds bristling with energy, the creamy curved pearls softly glowing like distant and mysterious moons. I noticed that in the corner of the case stood a wineglass filled with water. It was to provide humidity explained the man. Pearls are creations of the sea and easily desiccated. Dryness is the enemy. For this reason, he instructed me, pearls should never be stored in cotton since it wicks away water robbing pearls of moisture.
I lingered in front of the glass case quietly lost in thought. I could marvel at these wonderful pearls with all the innocence of an outsider. I could admire their beauty and appreciate them as relics of the past with untainted enjoyment. For me the history was purely academic. I didn’t live it. But I wondered about the people native to this region. After everything that had happened, was there any romance left in pearls? Or were there only painful memories?