With their mysterious origins and luminescent surfaces, pearls have an intrinsic glamour. They were for centuries the most precious of gems, more treasured even than diamonds. Mikimoto Kōkichi’s development of cultured pearls in the early 20th century made pearls more common and affordable—and a big international business. In recent years, Chinese freshwater pearl farms have further expanded pearl production. In Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls, journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom traces pearls from oyster to store, revealing a usually hidden world of jewelry tycoons and pearl enthusiasts. In revealing the complex global business behind the jewels, he manages not to strip the gems of their glamour but, through his own fascination, to restore some of the luster they’ve lost to images of staid preppy matrons. To introduce a week of selections from Tears of Mermaids, journalism professor (here, here, here, and here), Bloom answered our questions about the glamour and business of pearls.
DG: Why pearls? What's their appeal to you? SB: Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a quirky newspaper story about a year in the life of a frayed tuxedo jacket I rented when a friend asked me to be an usher at his wedding. After I returned the tux to the rental store, I followed who else wore the same jacket for the next 51 weeks. The jacket, model 18214, went on four Caribbean cruises, not just a few weddings, and a slew of proms. By week 14, jacket 18214 had developed a rip under the right shoulder. After week 22, it came back with a bloodstain under the left armpit (I didn’t want to know). Several times 18214 was returned with either vomit stains or the smell of vomit on it. Those proms and weddings must have been festive affairs. After the year was over, I interviewed as many of the wearers as I could find. One man, Renter 46, told me he had worn 18214 while on an Alaska cruise with a woman who was not his wife. He asked me to withhold his name, a request I honored.
The tuxedo story was a gimmicky piece that began in a rental shop and from there moved forward. But years later, I wondered if my direction had been wrong. What would have happened had I moved backward in time — to where the jacket’s fibers had been grown, who had gathered the crop and how, where the threads had been spun into cloth, who had sewn on the buttons?
Tracking the hopscotch world route from creation to consumption was an off-the-wall concept that stayed with me, and not just for tuxedo jackets. Who were the nurturers at whose hands any object took shape? What kinds of lives did each along this global assembly line lead? What were their stories? Did the goods these laborers produce have any meaning to them? After the products were manufactured, how many middlemen traded the goods along the way, and by what amount did each hike the price?
Some people have visions of Jesus, Rolexes, Rolls Royces, the 18th hole at St. Andrews. My visions have always been of pearls. Big, beautiful, shiny, luminescent ones.
As the Western world becomes less and less a consortium of producer nations, we forget (or ignore) that the objects we wear, consume and surround ourselves with come to us from a spider-web network of laborers, processors, managers, brokers, agents, jobbers and distributors, usually in faraway places. The closer to the raw material, the less remunerative the pay usually is (straight out of Economics 101, I know, but nonetheless something I found nutty). Some workers earn practically nothing. Others further up the ladder are rewarded quite handsomely. All share hopes and dreams, desperation and heartbreak. Yet we know nothing about these anonymous laborers, toiling to bring necessities, convenience, and luxury to our insular, cozy lives. Who are they all?
Those at the beginning of the global chain seldom know anything about those in the middle or those at the end; those in the middle and end know little, if anything, about those at the beginning. The genius of the global economy, of course, is to ensure that we’ll never know any of them. Indeed, part of that genius is to dissociate with the end user any human intervention whatsoever in the creation and transit of the commodities to which we’re so fiercely attached.
But why exactly pearls? That’s the question. Why not some other object (diamonds, coffee beans, chocolate, really almost any commodity would have worked) to use as a prism to observe the world’s interconnections? What was it about pearls that led me on this crazy, manic four-year orbit?
And it’s a good question. My affection for pearls is curious. Except for pearls, I’m not a jewelry person. I’ve never worn a watch. I hate diamonds and gold. Too showy, too glittery. Too much of a neon sign. Pearls, though, are altogether different. Plucked from a live oyster, pearls are at once shiny, lustrous, ready to wear. They need no polishing, no treatment.
I’ve carried a torch for pearls ever since I was a little boy. My favorite book was The Pearl, which I must have read 20 times. I had (and still have) a wild crush on Holly Golightly, the Audrey Hepburn character in the 1961 film Breakfast At Tiffany's, bedecked in those exquisite pearl strands while peering into Tiffany’s on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Princess Grace, Jackie Kennedy, and Princess Diana were beautiful women, yes, but what sealed their sophistication and charm for me wasn’t their looks, it was the pearls they wore.
Some people have visions of Jesus, Rolexes, Rolls Royces, the 18th hole at St. Andrews. My visions have always been of pearls. Big, beautiful, shiny, luminescent ones. The best have orient, a depth that allows a connoisseur to look into the pearl and see different layers of conchiolin, or calcium carbonate. It’s like looking into a pearl’s soul. Let me play with pearls any day. It’s my grown-up version of marbles. There’s something so tactilely satisfying about rolling them around on your palms, pushing them atop a white cloth to see if they wobble, or spinning them between your index finger and thumb to determine the perfect round pearl from the near-round.
Still, though, why pearls, of all things?
I was mesmerized by what I thought were mysterious white marbles on a string. I’d marvel at their sheen, but what I remember most was the clean, clicking sound the pearls made when they collided with each other.
They’re a touchstone to my mother, a way to remember her. When I was a child, my mother used to wear — only on special occasions — her one and only pearl necklace. The strand was modest and frugal, as was my family, a reflection of post-Depression, post-World War II. The necklace had been given to my mother by her mother as a wedding present. Preparing to go out for a modest night on the town, perhaps to celebrate their anniversary, my father would dress in a suit and somber tie, my mother would wear a cheerful but demure dress. Following the age-old pearl dictum, “last on, first off,” my mother would fix her hair and slip into her dress. Then she’d take the glass stopper of a bottle of Shalimar perfume, and dab behind each earlobe. It was only when she was finally ready that my mother would ask my father to fasten the clasp to her one extravagance: the pearl necklace. This was always an ordeal, my father struggling with the clasp, my mother waiting anxiously till he got it right. “Stand still,” he’d instruct my mother, sternly and genially.
I was mesmerized by what I thought were mysterious white marbles on a string. I’d marvel at their sheen, but what I remember most was the clean, clicking sound the pearls made when they collided with each other. They had a certain weight and density, they had symmetry, but most of all, they seemed to still be alive. To a little boy, they had magical powers.
Once a year, there they’d be, my parents — two ordinary Americans in the 1950s, arm in arm, strolling out the front door of an ordinary suburban home, headed to celebrate another year together, a single strand of pearls leading their way to the future.
DG: Your book traces the path pearls take from oyster to final buyer, depicting a lot of the business and technical details. Does knowing where they come from change how you feel about pearls?
SB: I started out knowing practically nothing about pearls — with the possible exception that pearls are created when a grain of sand gets caught inside an oyster. Wow, was I ever clueless! Besides finding out that the grain-of-sand theory is a myth, I discovered a global cosmos of pearl freaks, people who not only work daily with pearls, but who are as addicted to pearls as chocoholics are to chocolate.
The four years I worked on the book turned into a pilgrimage and ended as an obsession. I drove hard bargains with cagey dealers and got ripped off (at least in the beginning) before I learned to haggle with the best dealers in the world. I became pearl-crazed, spending hours studying individual pearls till I got dizzy. Pearls were all I thought about. Wherever I went, I had vivid, recurring dreams about them. I still do.
Maybe it was over the blue expanse of the South Pacific or the Timor Sea while sorting pearls moments after they had emerged from their watery wombs. As I got more and more attached to these perfect little spheres, as my appreciation for them deepened, my fascination paradoxically became as much about pearls and as what pearls ultimately represent. Yes, they embody how humans can trick and then coax Mother Nature into producing one of the world’s most heavenly and expensive objects. That was a nifty trick, but it wasn’t what drew me deeper and deeper into pearls. Pearls had grown into metaphors, ways to look at global economics, the environment, fashion, wealth, danger, greed, exploitation, adventure, even human spirit.
You might think this little pearl “phase” of my life is now over. That now I can get on with the rest of whatever is important in the life of a Midwest college professor and writer. But, still, seeing a spectacular strand of pearls drops me to my knees.
When I was researching the book, I can’t begin to guess how many times I’d be at a pearl convention, show, or auction when a drop-dead gorgeous woman would stun everyone by strutting in, wearing a magnificent strand of pearls. Given the audience at these events, every head would swivel towards the necklace (not the woman). Within a nanosecond, the dealers would have assessed the pearls’ orient, lustre, surface quality, size, shape, and match — and, if they were as grand as they looked at first blush, the dealers’ eyes would dilate. Without a moment’s hesitation, the first thing they’d sputter to the woman would be, “May I inquire the provenance of your pearls?” It was all a game, of course, since the dealers already knew, but a popular diversion nonetheless since the wearer almost never had a clue.
I’ve become that dealer.
DG: What's the most surprising thing you learned about pearls?
SB: The most amazing thing pearls was to see the pearls fresh and virgin, sitting inside an oyster waiting to be plucked out. And if everything had worked according to plan, the pearls sitting next to the oysters’ gonads would be big, round, and lustrous. I saw thousands of pearls come directly from oysters, and each and every time I saw another pearl extracted from inside an oyster, my heart skipped a beat. It’s akin to witnessing a birth of sorts.
I also learned the two ways to tell real pearls (either cultured or natural, it doesn’t make any difference) from fakes: by rubbing a single pearl across the bottom of your teeth or by rubbing two pearls against each other. Either test will produce the same gritty sensation. Fakes feel smooth. Fakes are generally glass beads; there is no drag, no friction; whereas pearls have a natural coating that is impossible to replicate.
DG: In our DeepGlamour Q&As we routinely ask the question, Diamonds or Pearls? Although pearls have their fans, people often use words like “stodgy,” “dowdy,” and “very Westport, Connecticut.” One interviewee said, “Pearls are classy, but they add 10 years to anyone.” Why do pearls have these negative associations?
Blame it on June Cleaver, vacuuming the living room carpet in a tailored suit, high heels, and a pearl strand, waiting for Ward to come home and ask about the Beaver. Barbara Bush also was terrible for the pearl industry.
But wrap a strand of luscious baroque Tahitian black pearls around Halle Berry’s neck, and I doubt anyone would think that they make her look ten years older.
Pearls don’t have to be round or white any longer. Nor do they have to be dainty and small, always in traditional matinee length. Today, pearls come in exotic, freeform shapes in just about every color of the rainbow. Women can wrap ropes of pearls around their necks. They can use them in their hair. Classic, symmetrical, round white pearls still work, but I personally prefer pearls with contours, rivulets, ripples in them.
Coco Chanel in the 1930’s promoted the casual use of pearls, and I think what Coco did 80 years ago was a pretty fashion-forward thing to do. She mixed faux pearls with real ones, whether she was kicking around in sneakers and Capri pants, or wearing the little black dress she invented.
Today’s remade June Cleavers are just as likely to wear pearls — now, though, they’re dressed in Vera Wang cocktail dresses and Jimmy Choo stilts, or wearing Old Navy sweatpants and flip-flops.
An abbreviated registry of today’s style-makers for whom pearls are close to the core of their fashion aesthetic includes Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nancy Pelosi — but also Michelle Obama, Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Oprah Winfrey, Jodie Foster, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts, even Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Your grandmother might still wear pearls, but probably not in a low-cut Versace gown with a thigh-high slit. As shoe-design king Manolo Blahnik put it: “Pearls give a gloss, a certain refinement, even if you’re just a trashy girl.”
The thing about pearls is that they project a series of paradoxes that gold or diamonds can’t touch: innocence and power; simplicity and sophistication; youth and wisdom; integrity and drama; humility and conceit; tradition and haute couture; chastity and sexuality; modesty and wealth. Really, when you think about it, what other fashion item can do all that?
SB: Several suggestions:
• Get to Michelle and convince her to wear pearls every day, not just when she’s pumping iron, entertaining the Indian prime minister at a state dinner, visiting Sasha and Malia’s school on parent-teacher night, or slipping out for burgers with Barack at a Foggy Bottom diner. First Ladies (Remember Jackie? Forget everyone else) for better or worse ought to be the world’s chief progenitors of wow glamour.
• Spend more on product placement of hip, fashion-forward, large baroque pearl strands worn by glamorous trendsetters at events like the Golden Globes, Tonys, and Oscars. Don’t bother with the People’s Choice Awards.
• Let women know that the value of pearls outstrips diamonds and gold because pearls can be worn more often and in more diverse settings. Gold or diamonds of the same price as AAA pearls weigh too much to be worn. Something else distinguishes pearls from gold or diamonds: Gold shines, diamonds sparkle, but pearls actually glow. Their soft, warm luminescence quite literally lights up a wearer’s face. Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but let’s face it, in a necklace they’re over-the-top garish. And gold frankly doesn’t look great against the milky complexions of Caucasian women.
• Educate jewelers. People who sell jewelry generally know little about pearls. I can’t tell you how often I’ve gone into a jewelry store, and innocently ask a clerk to show me a pearl strand, only to be told outrageous tales about the pearls — that they’re natural, or that they’re are still living. Really! There’s not much general knowledge about pearls these days in the jewelry industry, and I think that may cause jewelers to steer buyers towards other adornments.
• One thing I wouldn’t do is mandate a uniform grading scale of pearls. Many leaders in the industry advocate the creation of such a system. I oppose such a plan. Pearls don’t have carats or the 4C’s to set price. While a dealer can boast of a pearl’s color, lustre, skin purity, orient, shape, there’s still no universal grading system. The same strand can go for $300 or $30,000. Even the best appraisals are sketchy and subjective. Pricing a pearl is wholly subjective. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like ’em so much. Their beauty lies wholly with the beholder.
Pearls are the coalmine canaries of the world’s seas and oceans. The environment pearls come from (at least for saltwater pearls) has to be absolutely pristine for pearls to flourish. There’s no equivalent in the pearl world to “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds.” There are no dark, calamitous, unsafe mineshafts.
• Pearls are the coalmine canaries of the world’s seas and oceans. The environment pearls come from (at least for saltwater pearls) has to be absolutely pristine for pearls to flourish. Pearls don’t have to be faceted or melted. They’re organic objects that come out of their natural homes perfect.
There’s no equivalent in the pearl world to “blood diamonds” or “conflict diamonds.” There are no dark, calamitous, unsafe mineshafts, as there are with gold, diamonds, and other extractive ores and minerals. Today, the conditions under which pearl workers around the globe labor are reasonably good. Certainly, some pearl workers are poorly paid (principally in China and Indonesia, and to a lesser degree in the Philippines), but wages in most venues are relatively high. The industry needs to broadcast this aspect of pearl cultivation.
• Change the way the jewelry industry sells pearls. Open pearl boutiques, where buyers are able to sift through dozens of bins filled with pearls. This way buyers can create their own strands, rings, bracelets, and earrings.
One of the coolest pleasures of my travels was to plunge my hands into vats filled with pearls, and to let the pearls fall through my opened, splayed hands. I did this in Japan, China, the Philippines, French Polynesia, and Australia. I never got tired of doing it, either. The feeling was quite like nothing I’d ever experienced. And it wasn’t just the tactile sensation; it was the click-clack, plinking sound of so many luscious pearls colliding. Every woman and man ought to have the same sensation.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour? Feeling very cool in a tuxedo.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? Miranda Priestly
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Is the Pope Catholic?
4) Favorite glamorous movie? Hands down: Breakfast At Tiffany's
5) What was your most glamorous moment? Sipping cocktails in the grand, glass-ceiling lobby of the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville December 18, 2009, with our dog Hannah lounging on a Persian carpet. The scene would have made Scott and Zelda proud.
6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? A pressed linen handkerchief (inside my antique leather handkerchief carrying case).
7) Most glamorous place? Shanghai
8) Most glamorous job? My very brief career as press secretary to the Mayor of San Francisco (it lasted 71 days).
9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't. Perfume. Being a foreign correspondent.
10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized. Spending a month writing at The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artist’s colony in America. They deliver a gourmet lunch in a picnic basket to your cabin every day.
11) Can glamour survive? Yes, but it’ll take on a different form as we get more and more casual.
12) Is glamour something you're born with? No, but looks are.
1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Catwoman’s pouty lips still spook me, and Cate’s bony hips and teeny shoulders scare me. Anyone for Maria Bello?
2) Paris or Venice? Paris. Impossible to get away from the legions of lost tourists in the City of Canals.
3) New York or Los Angeles? Definitely New York, although LA’s weather beats New York’s any day.
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Totally Grace.
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Kobe.
6) Boots or stilettos? Stilettos (What straight guy wouldn’t prefer ’em ?)
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Deco. Absolutely.
8) Jaguar or Aston Martin? A.M., The Spy Who Loved Me’s fab fav.
9) Armani or Versace? So très yesterday. Long live the new kings and queens: Narciso Rodriquez, Azzedine Alaia, Naeem Kahn, Thakoon Panichgul, Maria Pinto, Maria Cornejo, Tracy Feith, Peter Soronen, Jason Wu, Isabel Toledo
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Diana for the ages.
11) Champagne or single malt? MacAllan single malt is nectar from the gods. If you can afford the 18-year, go for it. Better: MacAllan 25.
12) 1960s or 1980s? ’80s despite Reagan and Bush I. RIP go-go boots and plastics.
13) Diamonds or pearls? C’mon!
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Project Runway babe Heidi Klum rocks my world. Auf Wiedersehen to the rest.
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? The one and only.
[The Girl with Pearl Earring from Wikimedia Commons. Pearl photos by Stephen Bloom. Barbara Bush portrait from the Library of Congress. The Obamas dancing by at the Governors Ball by Pete Souza, from The White House Flickr stream.]