The Allure of Pearls

Introduction
Exhibition Information
Pearls Questions and Answers
The Christopher Walling Abalone Pearl
The Hope Pearl
The Pearl of Kuwait
Paspaley Pearl
Pearl of Asia
Black Beauty
Paspaley Drop Shape Pearls
Conch Pearls
Survival
Queen Mary Brooch
Drexel Pearl
La Peregrina


Introduction

Our attraction to pearls is timeless. Among the first gems known to early humans, pearls have grown in value and appeal from accidental finds by fishermen to a multibillion-dollar industry. Their rarity has made them a traditional sign of wealth, filling vaults from Ancient Egypt to Hollywood and gracing many of history’s famous figures. This collection assembles a rare grouping of pearls—each with its own history, beauty, and science. Enjoy these radiant works of nature. (top)


Exhibition Information

The Allure of Pearls will run through September 5, 2005
Geology, Gems, and Minerals Hall, Second Floor
Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

This Exhibition is generously supported by:
Paspaley Pearls Pty. Ltd.
IRIDESSE Pearls (top)


Pearl Questions and Answers


What is a pearl?
A pearl is mostly aragonite crystals, a form of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) which also makes up other marine organisms from coral to sea urchins. Pearls are produced by a variety of mollusks in warm fresh and sea waters around the world. They appear in a wide range of colors, shapes, and sizes.

How do pearls form?
The mollusk protects its delicate interior by coating foreign objects (usually a tiny piece of shell or parasite) with calcium carbonate, the same substance that lines the inside of their shells. This “seed” grows larger as the mollusk continues to coat it. Among the mollusks that can produce pearls are mussels, oysters, clams, snails, conch, and abalone.


How are pearls judged?
Similar to other gems, pearls are judged by their size, weight, shape, surface quality, thickness of the nacre (the coating produced by the mollusk), color, orient (play of colors across the surface) and luster. Generally, the larger the pearl, the rarer and more valuable it is.


How do natural and cultured pearls differ?

Natural pearls occur without any intervention by humans and are found in fresh or sea waters. They tend to form more organic shapes and less than perfect spheres. Cultured pearls are the result of humans inserting foreign particles inside the mollusk. They grow in ocean or freshwater farms and generally are more uniformly colored and shaped. (top)

 


Christopher Walling Abalone Pearl

187.5 carats
Loaned by Paspaley Pearls Pty. Ltd.
Although better known for its flavorful meat and iridescent shells, abalones can produce asymmetrical pearls, usually of cone or cusp shapes. Unlike the structure of oyster and mussel pearls, abalone pearls have an alveolar, or honeycomb-like, structure which produces an unusual surface sheen or pattern.
(top)



Hope Pearl
450 carats
Loaned by Christie’s
Nineteenth-century gem collector Henry Philip Hope owned nearly150 natural pearls, of which the best known was the Hope Pearl. This large, natural pearl is uniquely colored—grading from a dark bronze to white. It is probably a blister pearl, a type which grows attached to the mollusk’s shell. (top)


Pearl of Kuwait

64.4 carats
Loaned by Symbolic and Chase
Little is known about this pearl’s history, but its silky luster and white body color recall the classic appearance of natural pearls from the Persian Gulf. Based on the intricate bell cap design, this exceptional pearl was set in the 19th century and most likely suspended from a multi-row necklace. (top)


Paspaley Pearl

60.9 carats
Loaned by Paspaley Pearls Pty. Ltd.
This extraordinary cultured pearl is approximately 50 percent larger than the average South Sea pearl, making it one of the largest ever produced. Its luster, near perfect spherical shape, and soft pink overtone are the result of exceptionally uniform layers of nacre that formed around its nucleus. (top)


Pearl of Asia

600 carats
Loaned by Christie’s
One of the largest natural pearls in the world, the Pearl of Asia first surfaced in 17th century India. After the siege of Delhi it became the property of the King of Persia (present-day Iran), who in turn gave it to Chinese Emperor Qianlong. In China it was thought to bring happiness and good fortune. (top)


Black Beauty

6.5 carats
Loaned by American Pearl Company
Black Beauty hails from the South American shores of the Caribbean or Equador, a region that has produced many fancy colored pearls. This well formed, button shaped natural pearl illustrates a blend of bright colors, orient, and high sheen, making it one of the finest natural black-colored pearls known. (top)


Paspaley Drop Shape Pearls

18.8 carats (each)
Loaned by Paspaley Pearls Pty. Ltd.
The rough seas off the coast of northern and western Australia produce some of the largest and finest pearls in the world. It is extremely rare to find one natural pearl so well proportioned and symmetrical, but to find two is extraordinary. Both show a very clean surface and fine luster. (top)


Conch Pearls

22.4 carats (left)
17.9 carats (right)
Loaned by Susan Hendrickson
The Queen conch, a mollusk found in the Caribbean, produced these natural pearls. A deep pink is the most sought after color, but yellow, white, and red pearls are also known. The conch pearl’s internal structure differs from traditional pearls, producing a characteristic flicker across its surface. (top)


Survival

90.4 carats
Loaned by American Pearl Company
The lavender-pink and bronze colored Survival is an exceptional example of a freshwater pearl from the Tennessee River. The pearl takes its shape from the snail parasite that intruded inside the mussel and its name from the time it grew inside the shell, about 50–70 years. (top)


Queen Mary Brooch

24.9 carats (top)
28.1 carats (bottom)
Loaned by Georges Ruiz, P. Lancon S.A.
This excellent example of conch pearl jewelry belonged to Queen Mary (1867–1953), the wife of King George V. Conch pearls were particularly popular in Europe during the early 20th century. Their deep color and the silky sheen across the surface distinguish this type of natural pearl from traditional pearls. (top)


Drexel Pearl

33.8 carats
Loaned by Andrew Cohen S.A.
The Drexel Pearl (lower pearl) is named after Mary S. Irick Drexel, an early-20th-century American philanthropist. The symmetry of this natural Polynesian pearl, the subtle gray color, and the orient of its smooth surface make it extremely rare. It is set in a Belle Epoque pendant-brooch by Cartier of America. (top)


La Peregrina

50 carats (bottom pearl)
Loaned by Elizabeth Taylor
La Peregrina (meaning “pilgrim”) is one of the most celebrated and historical pearls in the world. After its discovery in the Gulf of Panama in the 16th century, King Phillip II of Spain gave the pearl to Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor). It has also been owned by Spanish royalty, the Bonapartes of France, and the British Marquis of Abercorn. In 1969, actor Richard Burton gave the pear shaped natural pearl to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who had Cartier reset it with pearls, diamonds, and rubies. (top)

 

NMNH Home Page