Natural pearls are now so rare, and their price so high such that these most interesting jewels have become the ultimate fashion items to have reports FUNKE OSAE-BROWN.
Temisan Olaogun adores pearls. When she was at Harrods store in London last month, she bought Redline White Gold Pearl Bracelet, Shaun Leane Cherry Blossom Ring with Diamonds and Pearls plus a pair of Links of London Effervescence Pearl stud earrings.
“I could have bought more,” she tells me laughing. “But I was running low on cash. I needed money to do other things. I love pearls a great deal because they are timeless.”
Pearls have long been the charter of the well-behaved classes in the western world. They are classic part of the rich’s wardrobe as the ever classic little black dress.
They are never out of place and can be worn with casual gear as well as with a ball gown. And if there’s anything that links some of the world’s most famous but very disparate women, from the Queen of England to, Michelle Obama, and our own Nike Akande, it has to be their pearls.
Historically pearls used to be worn princes, kings and queens. In modern times, they have been associated with the decorous and the well-brought-up young women. But there is believed to be a difference in between ancient queens and modern day ‘girls in pearl’.
Ancient pearls were believed to have been real, or natural, while modern day ones are said to be cultured versions of the natural ones. Cultured pearls are, of course, “real”, in the sense that they, too, are formed around a piece of grit within an oyster or a mussel and are made up of nacre (mother-of-pearl).
But with natural pearls, the tiny bit of grit enters the mollusc all on its own, whereas in the cultured versions, a tiny bead made of polished shell and a piece of mantle tissue is introduced by man – a technique invented by Kokichi Mikimoto, founder of the Mikimoto pearl empire. The difference sounds so minute that it seems scarcely credible not just that pearl experts can so easily and quickly distinguish between the two, but also that there should exist such a huge disparity in their material value. It’s worth noting that the terms South Sea and Tahitian are only applied to cultured pearls, natural ones being so scarce as to be almost not worth mentioning.
A report by FT’s How To Spend It, shows that Chrissie Coleman-Douglas, who owns and runs Coleman Douglas Pearls, a specialist company with a shop in London’s Beauchamp Place, can sell a fine 46cm string of cultured, graduated pearls for about £1,500, “but at the same time could track down somebody who has a beautiful natural-black-pearl necklace of about the same length with an asking price of £150,000. At Bonhams, a strand of natural pearls that was given an estimate of £40,000-£50,000 in 2009 sold for £250,000 in 2010.”
Pearl is not indigenous to Nigeria; however, most Nigeria women who can afford it adorn their necks and wrists with pearls. Most of them shop for their pearls abroad. David Morris, a store in the UK famous for historic natural pearls is some of the places where they shop for pearls. At the store is a pair of grey cultured-pearl earrings – very pretty, hugely desirable – that had a price tag of some £3,000; while a pair of black and white natural-pearl earrings was selling for precisely 100 times more at £300,000. Single, natural pearls are often sold as a collector’s item, or set in a specially created one-off piece of jewellery. Indeed, very few matched strands of natural pearls exist, and those that do often sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Experts on luxury jewellery say natural pearls are not very common any more. The chances of coming across a saltwater pearl in the wild today are believed to be very distant. According to them, freshwater pearls from mussels are more readily available and are still being harvested in rivers and lakes in places such as India, the Persian Gulf, Mexico and Scotland – the latter being home to the famous Abernethy pearl, found in the River Tay in 1967. Also, a few black natural pearls are still available in Baja California.
Cairncross of Perth, a jeweller that specialises in Scottish freshwater pearls, currently stocks a string of white, pinky or a mauvy freshwater pearl that goes for about £5,000 and £25,000, depending on the quality, but they don’t have the cachet, or the transcendent beauty, of their saltwater cousins. Oil exploration in the Persian Gulf, the over-exploitation of pearl beds and the degradation of the marine environment mean that very few natural saltwater pearls remain and so, when you do come upon one, it will nearly always be from some historic, vintage source.
Seun Olaojo, a jeweller, says these days natural pearls are one of the rarest, most precious of jewels. According to her, they are sophisticated and stylish. ‘Natural pearls are really for sophisticated customers who really appreciate them,” she explains. “You can just see them anywhere. They are rare finds. Owners guide them jealously.”
Olaojo says the rise in price of natural pearls has to do with their scarcity and a realisation that soon they may not be any more for sale. “They are for the very expensive, chic and urbane market. They are meant for a niche market that understands the power of their beauty.”
Nneka Chukwu, a jeweller and lover of pearl says it is easy to tell the difference between a natural pearl and a cultivated one. A natural pearl has many layers of nacre. According to her, when out under a refraction of light, it gives back what the experts call ‘orient’. “It is as if your eye looking at the innermost part of the pearl,” she explains.
According to her, only natural pearls have this extraordinary quality. With cultured pearls, she says, they are entirely different because they have few nacre layers and there comes a moment when the light hits the artificial bead that was inserted and is blocked.
She further explains that the actual value of a natural pearl is determined in much the same manner as other precious gems, with size, shape, colour and lustre all coming into play.