What Is a Pearl?

Daintiest at Gems Result of Simple Chemical Action in Shell.

FREDERICK A. TALBOT February 15 1921

What Is a Pearl?

Daintiest at Gems Result of Simple Chemical Action in Shell.

FREDERICK A. TALBOT February 15 1921

What Is a Pearl?

Daintiest at Gems Result of Simple Chemical Action in Shell.


IT IS not the individual pearl which commands the high prices but the string of graduated pearls designed to grace a woman’s neck, so says Frederick A. Talbot in an article on pearl fishing, in World’s Work. One such string, consisting of thirty-seven units, is declared to have cost an American millionaire $400,000. What is the origin of the pearl? There is little mystery in the explanation which this author offers:

“My Lady may be ecstatic concerning her pearl possessions, but when we turn to that cold, calculating individual who revels in reducing everything to its logical basis, the chemist, our admiration receives a devastating shock. To him the pearl is nothing but carbonate of lime! Some foreign substance or parasite finds its way into the home of the oyster and a battle royal for supremacy at once commences. As a rule the oyster triumphs, but as it cannot expel the interloper or irritant the bivalve promptly proceeds to efface it by encasing it within an excrescence.

“The process is slow and the carbonate of lime is disposed in concentric layers of extreme thinness. The interference of light produces the peculiar iridescence or pearly appearance to the mass. The nacreous deposit may extend over the whole surface of the shell and be .of appreciable thickness, this lining being known as mother-of-pearl. If local the deposit will be of irregular shape and pronounced substance, and in this instance is known as the pearl. The shape, while invariably round or having the form of a pear may be irregular, while in some instances the pearl is composed of a cluster of such nodules.

“Seeing that the pearl is the result of a pathological process, one might wonder why enterprising man has not proceeded to the length of intensifying production. It would seem as if it were only necessary to catch the bivalve and to inject some suitable foreign substance into its domicile to be converted in the course of time into a pearl, but one, it is true, having a base foundation. Efforts have been made in this connection, but lest there may be some who may be tempted to resort to pearl production along these lines it must be explained that the process is exasperatingly slow and still more aggravatingly uncertain.

“The wily Chinee has turned this knowledge to full account. He does not hesitate to resort to such a practice, and it is to be feared that many who have acquired a pearl of which they are extremely proud from a Celestial, would receive a rude surprise upon consenting to their possession being submitted to dissection. One favorite artifice of the enterprising Chinaman is to insert tiny statues of Buddha, wrought in metal, into the oyster. In course of time the article becomes covered with the nacreous deposit which is generally sold, upon recovery, as a pearl cameo!

“Intensified processes having failed to create a pearl market and the volume of stones forthcoming being extremely limited, one naturally asks whence come the pearls? Where are they found? Pearl recovery is an industry apart and as specialised as the mining for diamonds, gold or rubies. Being a product of the sea it must be secured by a fishing process—one comparable with that followed in the case of the herring.

“It is the circumstance that the oyster can only be secured by this means which

is responsible for the absence of wild frenzy, characteristic of the gold rush, upon the discovery of any new ground The recovery of the yellow metal or other gem is mainly dependent upon the extent of individual exertion, while facilities prevail for the acquisition of a patch of land within the proved area, thereby giving possession which stimulates action. No capital is demanded; patience, dogged perseverance, and a pronounced streak of luck are the main determining factors. But in pearl recovery capital is an indispensable condition to assure the fishing grounds being attained, and vessels are a costly investment, no matter how flimsy they may be, while probing the ocean bed is an extremely speculative and precarious undertaking.

“The situation, from the plunger’s or prospector’s point of view, is aggravated from the circumstance that scientific discovery and investigation have narrowed down the probable pearl-bearing reaches of the sea-bed to within narrow well-defined limits. They are not widely scattered. The most famous pearl fishing territories are only three in number. The two best known are those of the Persian Gulf and Ceylon, which have been worked from time immemorial. But their contributions are uncertain: periods of plenty are freely interspersed with times of lean-

“Other areas lie off the coast of China and Lower California, the presence of the jewel-bearing bivalve being indicated by the geographical names bestowed upon certain of the districts in question, as, for instance, the Pearl Islands, in the Gulf of Panama, while certain of the big rivers of the world, notably the Mississippi, offer certain attractions in this field. At one time even the Scottish rivers could claim to be of decided importance in this connection, but the pearls recovered from such sources—river pearls they are

called—are of inferior quality, and are not commercially classed with those coming from the Persian Gulf and Cingalese waters.

“The largest pearl fishing field is the Australian, and some idea of its vast extent may be gathered from the fact that it is approximately 2,000 shore miles in length, stretching from Cape York to Shark Bay. This covers practically the whole of the tropical waters washing the shores of Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia—waters which are peculiarly favorable to the propagation of this oyster and wherein it flourishes prolifically.

“To-day, the naked diver is scarcely aught but a memory. Scientific methods have driven him from the scene, or at least have deprived him of his importance. He has been superseded by the man in the helmet and familiar dress, who, by virtue of his airline, is able to venture farther from the shore into the deeper waters, where richer prizes are to be found. The addition of the diving appliance of modern design has been responsible for ventures into water ranging in depth from 10 to 24 fathoms—60 to 144 feet—while the more expert and intrepid of the skilled fishers do not. hesitate to descend t« still greater depths upon occasion.

"The one difficulty attending the pearl fishery, if difficulty it can be called, is in regard to labor. The Asiatics virtually control the diving situation, in almost every instance the diver being a Japanese or Malay, who has embraced modern diving methods in preference to naked diving. As a matter of fact, the pearling industry is almost wholly dependent upon Asiatic labor, the crews being also recruited from these races. The only possible exception is the shell-opener, who in the majority of instances is a European, and possibly the owner of the vessel.

“Some idea of the manner in which the Jap and the Malay dominate the industry may be gathered from the fact that in 1919, out of 2,901 persons engaged in the North-West pearl fishery of Western Australia, only 30 were Europeans. The total number of Asiatics employed was 1,862, of which 1,179 were Japs and 565 Malays. So far as this industry is concerned, the aboriginal is inconspicuous, the total strength thereof for the year in question being only nine!

“As already pointed out, the fishery is engaged primarily in the recovery of shell. The search for pearls, pure and simple, might almost be regarded as a tributary undertaking. If the quest for pearls were the primary consideration, it is doubtful whether the industry could pay its way. At all events, it is a moot point whether the fleets would have attained their contemporary numerical strength. Pearls are not picked up like pebbles on the seashore; they are relatively few and far between while the circumstance that their value hinges upon so many fine points, such as color, shape and lustre, renders the undertaking additionally speculative.

“The precarious character of this phase of the work may be gathered from the fact that whereas during the year 1914 the estimated value of the pearls recovered in the North-West fishery among 4,407 luggers amounted to 1.84,000, the following year, which was particularly lean, brought forth only 1.12,568 from 2,637 luggers.

“The pearls in the oyster are much like the gold nugget in the black sand. They are found intermittently. Whereas, perhaps, the majority do not provoke a word of comment, now and again sensational finds are made which set the world buzz-

ing with excited interest. The NorthWest fishery, so far, has proved to be the most productive in this respect, every year bringing forth many striking gems of impressive size and beauty.

“From time to time, extraordinary ‘freaks’ of the oyster’s unremitting handiwork are brought to light. One of the most remarkable of these was the ‘Southern Cross,’ which was fished up many years ago—about 1874. This was a remarkable pearl, or rather collection of pearls, inasmuch as it comprised a series of nodules connected together, and

in such a manner as to assume the form of a cross. From the circumstance that it was discovered under the Southern Cross this name was bestowed upon it, and it still ranks as one of the most striking discoveries of its character so far recorded.

“Another rich prize was brought to the surface in 1911 at Broome. This was a gem weighing 178 grains, which was valued at 1.3,000. Another ‘stone,’ dis-

covered quite recently, provoked considerable discussion. This was the ‘Star of the West,’ which, upon being weighed, was found to tip the beam at 101 grains.”