Pearls Born and Made


‘ Is it true that to-day genuine pearls can be made by man?’

I was recently asked this by a friend of mine who is an ardent tree-cultivator, but not widely acquainted with matters of science.

‘No, they cannot,’ I replied.

* But I thought you had explained in a long memorandum,’ said he, ’that the Japanese were successful in producing genuine pearls by cultivation.'

‘That’s a different matter,’ I returned. ‘You are a good tree-cultivator, I know. In fact I have seen you graft shoots to barren pear trees. You obtained excellent fruit which would never have grown without your intervention; but do you pretend that you have made pears? No, you are fully aware that that is the business of the pear trees, and you content yourself with helping them as best you can; the Japanese do the same.’

‘Then, the Japanese graft pearlbuds?’

‘Quite so, only, instead of pear trees yielding pears, the Japanese have molluscs which bear pearls.’

Science is compelling economic and social adjustments almost daily, but here is one of the most curious results of her researches — the discovery of how to cultivate pearls which differ in no way from the natural products of the fisheries. Superficially a trivial matter, there are nice commercial and legal, if not ethical, questions that flow from the Japanese discovery. Can jewelers be compelled to declare a cultivated pearl not genuine, when in all qualities it is identical with the natural product — in other words, declare a difference, where there is none?

And what effect will the ability of men to produce these jewels have on their market-value? Will the discovery invalidate the Scriptures, so that it becomes no longer foolish to cast pearls before swine? A key to these curious questions can be found in the qualities and life-history of the pearl itself.

What we have to know first is, that a pearl is genuine only if it fulfills two essential conditions: —

1. If it has been produced by a certain tissue of a mollusc;

2. If it shows a certain number of qualities of surface, which give it what, is called its lustre.

Genuine pearls can be produced only by molluscs. This is an essential condition — though not the only one. The tissue of the mollusc, which forms both the pearl and the mother-of-pearl of the shell, is such a perfect laboratory that man can only imitate its production very clumsily, by the means offered to him in industry. As the mollusc is the only animal that possesses this laboratory, a pearl made either by man, or by an animal other than a mollusc, will be an imitation, a counterfeit, a false pearl.

Thus an imitation pearl-necklace, if well manufactured, can give the illusion of genuineness, even to an expert, if he is at four or five yards distance; but if he takes the necklace in his hands, and examines it under a strong magnifying glass, its artificial qualities are at once apparent. Molluscs, so to speak, have the monopoly of genuine pearls, and the control over their production. And yet not all molluscs are able to make pearls. In my childhood a story used to be told of a beautiful maiden who, going to the fountain to fetch water, showed kindness to an old woman by giving her a drink. Now, the old woman was a powerful fairy, and to reward the girl for her kindness of heart, made her a gift. Whenever the girl spoke, pearls proceeded from her mouth, mixed with her speech. This manner of pearlproduction always seemed to me a very great inconvenience in conversation; but however that may be, the girl had a wicked sister who, anxious to receive the same gift, also went to the fountain. But she showed herself impolite to the old woman, and the fairy punished her by causing serpents and toads, and not pearls, to issue from her mouth.

It is much the same with molluscs. Some can produce pearls and others can produce only a meaner substance — mother-of-pearl. It should be noted that it is the same organ of the mollusc which ordinarily produces the motherof-pearl and exceptionally the genuine pearl.

After long years of research in Japan, Mr. Mikimoto succeeded in producing pearls with the variety of pearl-producing oysters called ‘Meleagrina Martensi Dunker.’ We shall see further on, that these pearls show all the external characteristics of the natural Japanese pearls, and are obtained by an operation of animal grafting.

The clever operator envelops a little nucleus of mother-of-pearl in a fragment of the external tissue of a Meleagrina that is sacrificed. This nucleus is then introduced by means of a delicate operation into the deeper tissues of the graftbearing oyster, and after six or seven years a complete pearl is born.


The preceding statements were necessary to make a useful and practical comparison between natural and cultivated pearls. Natural pearls can be classed as such only if they possess certain characteristics of very unequal value. Some of these, such as the elasticity and the density, can give useful indications, but they will always remain secondary and acquire value only when complementary to other characteristics that exclude rather than confirm. I mean that a pearl which has the elasticity, the density, the hardness, even the chemical composition of a pearl, may not of necessity be genuine. But the absence of one of these characteristics would tend to prove its falsity. The examination of its density, for instance, in the case of a pearl which we suspect to be hollow, will help to prove this serious imperfection, and yet will not force us to the conclusion that this pearl can not be classed as genuine.

Such is not the case with certain qualities of surface, where we find the true characteristics of a genuine pearl.

I say certain qualities of surface, and not all qualities, because several of them — shape, size, and color, for instance — though very important, are not fundamental. A fine pearl is generally spherical; but some expensive pearls have a more or less elongated form, pear-shaped, for instance. A white pearl is highly esteemed by the jewelers; a pearl of a slightly yellow color is considered of great value; and certain gray or black pearls are particularly in demand by reason of their rarity.

The true characteristic qualities of surface are brilliance, lustre, and orient, the last two constituting the ‘water of the pearl.’ If we examine either with the naked eye, or with a magnifyingglass of a maximum power of two diameters, we can only distinguish a surface of a polished and smooth appearance; but this surface gives several impressions which we can classify as follows. It has: —

1.Brilliance, which shows itself by a luminous speck if the pearl is placed by itself on a horizontal surface.

2. Lustre, the appearance the pearl gives of being like velvet, together with the quality of iridescence.

3. Orient, revealed by an impression of depth in the midst of warm tonality.

The examination of intact complete pearls of Japanese cultivation shows that they possess identically the same characteristics as natural genuine pearls. Examining the surface of a number of these pearls with the microscope, and comparing them with the natural Japanese pearls, I could not detect a difference of any importance. Had I not been in possession of a certificate of their origin and, in many instances, of a section of the pearl, I should have been quite unable to state which were natural and which were cultivated.

It is easy to understand that, under these conditions, a jeweler with his magnifying glass, or a scientist with his microscope, can make no distinction whatever between a natural Japanese pearl and a cultivated one, without sawing or cutting the pearl into fragments, which is a rather drastic method of investigation. The only difference between a natural and a cultured pearl lies in the nucleus. If we cut pearls into sections a real difference appears. A complete cultivated pearl, sawn in two, reveals the presence of a large nucleus (generally mother-of-pearl) surrounded by concentric layers of pearl substance. This nucleus, in spite of its size, represents, in weight and volume, but a small portion of the pearl.

If we compare sections of the two pearls, we discover that the nucleus, giving birth to the natural pearl, is much smaller. It forms but a tiny black spot, around which concentric layers are formed, yellower and darker than the layers of the periphery. This fact has often been noticed in cut pearls, so that we may say that around the primitive nucleus of the natural pearl (the black spot) there is a kind of secondary nucleus, as big as the mother-of-pearl nucleus in cultivated pearls.

I wondered if this difference, which has its importance but which we can notice only if the pearl is divided into two or more parts, could have an influence on the exterior qualities of the pearl. Does the nucleus influence the beauty of the pearl? I made a series of experiments on this subject, by removing the mother-of-pearl and substituting several nuclei of different colors. I reached definite conclusions: the characteristics of the nucleus cannot furnish a test of the genuineness of a pearl, and have no direct influence upon its beauty.

Can cultivated pearls be obtained without a mother-of-pearl nucleus?

Through Mr. L. Pohl, the importer of culture pearls, I recently received for study a sample of a pearl cut in two, which bore the label: ‘pearl obtained by cultivation without mother-of-pearl nucleus (the two halves together weigh 13.68 grammes). ’

This fine, irregularly pear-shaped sample is a little over half an inch long. It bears on its broadened extremity two longitudinal furrows, and on the right side of the wider part, a small black swelling. Its external characteristics differentiate it from the Japanese pearls and bring it nearer to the pearls obtained with the big Meleagrina Margaritifera. From the point of view of external characteristics, it is a typical pearl. There is no trace of a mother-ofpearl nucleus, and all the pearl-layers are visibly concentric. The aspect of the section reminds us of natural pearls of an elongated type, where we often find a central granulous portion and a very large secondary nucleus. Nothing, either in the outward aspect, or in the appearance of the section which has been submitted to me, could distinguish it from a natural production.

Since then, I have had the opportunity of examining another sample of the same origin. It offers nearly the same characteristics, with a more regular appearance. Its exterior shows no imperfection; it is, like the other, a typical pearl in all its surface qualities, and the section is the same as that of many natural pearls of the elongated shape. There is nothing at all to distinguish it, either in surface or interior, from a natural product.

If, as I stated in my memorandum to the Academy, both samples really represent culture pearls, we have a definite answer to the question: ‘Can we obtain cultivated pearls without a mother-of-pearl nucleus?’ Unfortunately, even if one had on hand a great quantity of these new pearl samples, it would be difficult to state with certainty whether they were cultivated or natural; for even after sectioning the pearl, we have no better indications of its authenticity.

Is it possible to compel dealers to certify that they are selling either natural or cultivated pearls?

Such was the question recently put by Professor Cazeneuve, of the Faculty of Medicine and Pharmacy of Lyons, President of the French Society of Experts in Chemistry. Shortly after reviewing the present data on cultivated pearls, Professor Cazeneuve, without deciding between the different opinions, wrote as follows: ‘I presume that the complete identity between natural and cultivated pearls has been sufficiently demonstrated. The proof is made. It is decisive. But the prejudice remains. The commercial value, very different for the pearls of the two different origins, remains also a prejudice, and we know the strength of prejudice. A question arises immediately. Has a tradesman the right, in consequence of their absolute identity, to substitute a cultivated for a natural or “ wild ” pearl ? Science seems to absolve him and prejudice condemns him. Besides, after further reflection, the question appears to have extensive implications which cannot be ignored. Has a manufacturer the right to sell synthetic indigo instead of natural indigo of the Isatis tinctoria, asked for by a buyer who refuses to consider the absolute identity of the two materials? The question of origin arises in the same way for pearls. Speaking more generally, after the buyer has demanded a material of a determinate origin, has one the right to deliver a material of a different origin, but whose intimate nature and whose substantial qualities (to use legal terms) are identical with those of the material expected? In addition, it should be noted, the demand is made, according to hypothesis, under the influence of mere prejudice. I asked you for indigo of a vegetable origin; you are giving me synthetic indigo. Are you not deceiving me, in spite of the absolute identity of the two substances chemically, even in spite of the lower price that you are charging me for the synthetic indigo, and in spite of the absolutely identical dyeing qualities of both indigos?

‘The controversy that I am starting,’ continues the learned professor, ’takes on considerable importance when we touch upon cultivated pearls, which I shall call by analogy “synthetic pearls,” and which may to-morrow disturb the natural pearl-market, and influence transactions amounting to millions of dollars.

‘Litigation may arise. The identity of the gems renders useless an appeal to science. A legal inquest on origin will often meet with practical impossibilities. Cultivated and natural pearls will come out of the same laboratory. The waters of the Pacific are the laboratory where pearls of both origins will simultaneously be elaborated. Pleadings will, as usual, lead to assaults of cleverness and eloquence. What will the judges do?’

I do not pretend to solve juridically the question asked by Professor Cazeneuve, since upon this point I am quite incompetent; but I can, at least, look at it from the point of view of common sense. First of all, the comparison between synthetic indigo and complete cultivated pearls seems to me highly superficial, since, in the case of indigo, we have a cultivated and industrial product, whereas in the case of the pearl, we have a natural and cultivated product. The industrial product can be catalogued, and its true origin can easily be traced to the factory. Not so for cultivated products, and particularly for the submarine cultivated products, which are, as Professor Cazeneuve remarks, a special case, since they are developed in the waters of the Pacific, where pearls of both origins are simultaneously elaborated.

Now, cultivated as well as natural pearls are by-products of the oyster, or rather of the Meleagrina, which have been reared for a long time in the submarine farm of the Ago Bay and in similar pearl-fisheries.

Besides the culture pearls produced by grafting, natural pearls are regularly gathered from these Meleagrinæ. Now, if the new process really furnishes cultivated pearls without mother-of-pearl nucleus, and since the operation for culture is made on Meleagrinæ which are themselves capable of bearing natural pearls, Mr. Mikimoto himself will never be able to tell whether the pearls are cultivated or not. He will not even have, as for cultivated pearls with mother-of-pearl nucleus, the resource of cutting them open.

Now could a dealer substitute a cultivated pearl for a spontaneous natural product? With the best will in the world, a pearl-cultivator can only indicate a probable origin; as soon as the pearls are on the market, they will have to be classified, of course, as natural pearls,even if the prejudice establishes a difference of value between the two products. It seems improbable that pearls will ever have a certificate of birth. Yesterday, I met Mrs. X, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Z, whom I had not seen for twenty years. Formerly, she was a beauty, a symbol of perfection, a pearl. To-day, she no longer resembles the beautiful Mrs. X of my youth — yet in fact she is still Mrs. X.

Not so for pearls. In a few seconds a chemical agent can transform a beautiful pearl into a dead substance, as worthless as mother-of-pearl. Its origin counts for nothing. It has now the same value as a pearl of a comestible oyster, since it has none of the exterior qualities of a fine pearl.

For a long time, researches were restricted to inserting a nucleus between the tissue of the mantle and the shell. In this way, half pearls only were obtained. The Japanese have circumvented the difficulty, and without having solved the theoretical part of the problem, they have succeeded in overcoming the obstacle before which the other naturalists failed, by creating a sac out of the external tissue of the mantle, and by isolating it in the deeper tissues of the mollusc through grafting. We know that, by introducing a bit of the mantle’s outside tissue into the depth of the body, we can provoke the formation of pearl substance.

This discovery marks a great advance in pearl-cultivation, since it has led from the culture of half pearls to the culture of whole ones. We have seen that further improvements are being developed in the suppression of the mother-of-pearl nucleus in cultivated pearls, the only characteristic which allowed us to distinguish cultivated from natural pearls. The sentence: ‘Man will never be able to make pearls’ ought to be modified by adding: ‘But man is demonstrably able to provoke their formation in pearl-producing molluscs.'

It is always imprudent to forecast the future. I shall, therefore, only reconsider the immediate consequences of the facts we already know. Pearlproducing is a cultivation, not an industrial fabrication. Like every new process of cultivation, it is difficult and expensive. According to Mr. Rosenthal, the great Jewish jeweler, who is strongly opposed to cultivation, the cost-price is not far from that of wild fishery pearls.

Will this process of cultivation, then, depreciate the value of natural pearls? I do not think so. The difficulty of the operation, the time necessary for the pearl to form inside the body of the mollusc, and to attain a commercial value, are such that, in my opinion, the price of pearls will only fall to a slightly lower level, just as the price of gold or diamonds falls slightly when fresh mines are discovered. There is no reason, then, for being pessimistic.

Considering their limited production (for pearls can be successfully cultivated only in the warm seas), it is probable that the cultivation of a great number of small pearls would not be remunerative, but only the production of a few large and beautiful ones. The desire for a quick profit has incited a certain number of cultivators of half pearls to introduce, between the mantle and the shell, nuclei of mother-of-pearl, which are sometimes very big, and to leave them inside the mollusc for too short a time. This is what led certain English jewelers, who seem to confuse complete pearls with half pearls, to say: ‘Cultured pearls are mother-ofpearl beads covered with pearl nacre of varying degrees of thickness.’ The attraction of profit clearly might tempt some pearl-cultivators to such operations, inasmuch as the fraud is more difficult to detect in complete pearls than in half pearls. Luckily, this danger does not appear to me as much to be feared, on account of the difficulties of grafting the pearl sac. A sac containing a big nucleus will be voluminous, necessarily, and require a large wound in order to be introduced into the graftbearing Meleagrina. For this reason, it will be impossible to exceed a certain size of nucleus, and the cultivator will have to allow the oyster to secrete a great number of thick concentric layers on the nucleus in order to obtain a pearl of a saleable size.

Considering, therefore, the impossibility of discriminating by precise characteristics between a genuine culture pearl and a natural one, the best policy, perhaps, for the intelligent jeweler would be to admit that it is impossible for the time being to distinguish natural from culture pearls by their external characteristics; to make buyers of pearls share this conviction; and to declare publicly that a pearl presenting all the characteristics of the natural product is a genuine one, instead of asserting that a culture pearl is an imitation; for this statement throws suspicion at once on natural pearls, from which science itself cannot distinguish them.