Regarded as miracles of nature and living jewels, pearls have been accompanying humanity since time immemorial. GemGenève pays a beautiful tribute to them through a unique exhibition and associated lectures.

Carine Claude
1st November 2023
Geneva
352

They are the oldest jewels in the world. Revered and surrounded by myths and legends, pearls are shrouded in mysteries. The foremost among them: the magic surrounding their birth. It all begins with an accident when a shell coats a tiny intruder with nacre. The pearl, forming layer by layer, reveals an infinity of colours ranging from intense white to deep black, encompassing grey, blue, violet, and green. “Natural pearls are fascinating,” says Ronny Totah, co-founder of GemGenève. “Their unique beauty and rarity have captivated humans for thousands of years. Their formation takes decades, making them invaluable natural treasures." This avid aficionado and natural pearl specialist continues: "The perfection of natural pearls lies in their very imperfection. Each pearl is unique, with its own size, shape, colour, and lustre. They can be round, oval, baroque or even teardrop-shaped. Their colour varies from pure white to deep black, with a wide range of shades like pink, champagne, and iridescent blue-green, reminiscent of dragonfly wings.”

Another mystery of the pearl lies in its harvest, when traditional fishermen venture into the depths, often risking their lives. They brought glory and fortune to the Persian Gulf. From Japan to South America, from Australia to Ceylon, and through the Mozambique Channel, all the world’s oceans have been, at one time or another, indispensable fishing sites.

Once Upon a Time…

The oldest pearl harvested by humans, over 8,500 years ago, was found in Mexico. “Humanity has a very special relationship with pearls,” explains Laurent Cartier, pearl expert at the Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF), a reputable laboratory in Basel. “It is probably the oldest precious material used by humans. Some have been dated to over 8,000 years old. In comparison, the oldest diamonds are 3,000 years old, as are rubies and sapphires.” The oldest pearl jewellery, a three-strand necklace comprising 216 pearls, was discovered in Iran in 1901. It belonged to a Persian princess who lived over 2,500 years ago. In ancient China, pearls were offerings to gods and emperors. The Romans saw them as symbols of wealth and social standing. A golden age for this jewel, a favourite among the elite. The second golden age blossomed during the Renaissance. Embroidered on costumes, worn as jewellery, earrings, and crowns, pearls were omnipresent among nobility. In France and Europe, the 19th century was the era of imperial and bourgeois extravagance, with sautoirs of three, five, or even seven strands, before major houses like Chaumet, Cartier, or Vever reimagined the art of pearl jewellery in the early 20th century.

“There has always been an incredible enthusiasm for fine pearls due to their rarity, with of course more or less marked periods,” specifies expert Laurent Cartier. “Recently, for example, during the years 2010-2018, wild pearls were particularly sought after. But it must be understood that for fine pearls, there are almost no new productions. Jewellers work on old stocks. The material has such value that people take care of it like works of art. There are few collectors, few dealers, but some are very specialised. It’s a unique know-how and a niche market with extremely high prices.”

The Science of Pearls

For its rarity almost led to the extinction of wild pearls. To meet the booming demand, overfishing was a systematic practice at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. “In a way, the discovery of cultured pearls saved this industry, as it would have been impossible to continue extracting so many pearl oysters,” explains Laurent Cartier. The birth of the cultured pearl is generally associated with Japan in the late 19th century. In 1893, the Japanese Kokichi Mikimoto created this specimen by deliberately introducing a parasite called a nucleus inside an oyster shell. The mollusc, thanks to its innate defense mechanism, secretes nacre and a pearl then forms. It was truly from 1905 that the process was developed to obtain the first perfectly spherical cultured pearls. “Mikimoto revolutionised pearl cultivation and was also a marketing genius. Fine pearls were inaccessible to many and he managed to democratise this product,” explains Laurent Cartier. This discovery marks the beginnings of pearl cultivation. An activity initially tainted with distrust, as fine pearls were the Holy Grail of creation. But cultured pearls allowed major jewellers to explore new paths and new aesthetics for pearl jewellery. “Even today, Kobe in Japan is one of the most important places in the world. All the most beautiful cultured pearls in the world transit through here. The Japanese know-how is unique,” notes the pearl expert.

Treasures of Ingenuity

Even before the development of cultivation techniques, people have always sought to imitate wild pearls. A phenomenon as ancient as the passion they evoke. Since antiquity, there have been attempts to replicate these treasures of nature, so coveted yet so hard to obtain. “The Romans already made imitations. Leonardo da Vinci even created a recipe for pearls! Imitation has always existed,” says Laurent Cartier. “The real, the fake, the perception of luxury or value existed since antiquity. There’s a degree of ingenuity in some imitations. We can’t dismiss everything and say it is bad. The end consumer needs to know what they are buying, but there’s also a form of art in it. Imitation is part of the heritage and history of pearls. It’s one of the topics that will be discussed at the ‘Pearls of Truth’ roundtable.”

Sentinels of the Oceans

Another crucial point to be addressed during the second roundtable “Pearls: Contemporary Scene and Challenges” will be the issue of sustainability. Pearl oysters, like other molluscs, are extremely sensitive to climate change. The carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, which are becoming increasingly acidic. Result: shells struggle more and more to form. “In the long term, this phenomenon may impact production,” explains Laurent Cartier. “Another major aspect is that oysters are sensitive to temperature fluctuations and pollution, to algae, etc. They are very good barometers of the health of our oceans and waterways, especially in China which cultivates freshwater pearls. To continue producing quality cultured pearls, pearl farmers must take this into account.”

Stars

Fine or cultured, pearls continue to attract stars and crowds. In 2014, the “Pearls” exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London was a huge success. Among the 200 pieces of jewellery displayed were a white pearl worn by Charles I, tiaras of European aristocracy, the Akoya pearl necklace given by baseball player Joe DiMaggio to his wife Marilyn Monroe, and Elizabeth Taylor’s earrings. The latter, a great lover of pearls, also owned the Peregrina, a legendary pearl both for its beauty and its history. It was supposedly discovered in 1579 by a black slave in the Gulf of Panama, who bought his freedom with it. Sold to a Portuguese merchant, it was then acquired by Philip II of Spain. It found its way onto the neck of his wife, Queen Mary Tudor, and many queens after her. Napoleon I seized it. Napoleon III sold it to the Duke of Abercorn. Then it disappeared… Richard Burton won it for $37,000 at Sotheby’s in 1969 and gave it to his wife, Liz Taylor. When it was auctioned again after the actress’s death in 2011, it fetched an astronomical sum of $11.84 million at Christie’s in New York to an anonymous bidder. Perhaps it will reappear one day... The legend continues.

It is in order to celebrate pearls and the legends surrounding them that GemGenève decided for its seventh edition to pay tribute to these treasures of nature with "The Pearl Odyssey", an immersive exhibition featuring more than thirty pieces of exceptional jewellery from the house of Chaumet, the Flee Project collective, and exhibitors of the fair, as well as loans from the Hussain Al Fardan Collection, a unique collection of fine pearls — arguably the most beautiful one — preserved in a private museum in Doha. "We made the decision to pay tribute to them by dedicating an exhibition to reveal their hidden beauty to visitors," adds Ronny Totah. A beautiful declaration of love for this millennial gem.