A hundred or so years ago, the only choices for a pearl lover were to either acquire natural –a gift from the sea, lake or river, and created by the mussel without intervention from humans– or imitation — a glass bead with a pearlescent coating manufactured from fishscales. In the early part of the 20th century, enterprising Japanese inventors, chiefly Mikimoto, succeeded in developing the ability to control the creation of a pearl inside a mussel at will. It was an extraordinary accomplishment. The basic idea was to help the oyster along by inserting a bead inside its tissues, which would activate the production of nacre–the beautiful lustrous response the oyster makes when confronted with a foreign body inside.
These cultured pearls were formed in saltwater, inside a type of oyster known as akoya. Today a distinction is made about whether a pearl is from the saltwater akoya oyster, or whether it is from freshwater production. Until the late 1980s no one bothered to make that distinction, because freshwater pearls were rare and natural. In fact, if any distinction was made, it was between cultured pearls and natural pearls. There just weren’t that many choices in cultured pearls, as there are today. In fact, one of the early cultured freshwater pearls produced by the Chinese, the so-called “rice krispie” pearl, was dismissed for its oversaturation in the market and its pathetically low cost, and it wasn’t considered fine jewelry.
Freshwater pearls dominate the market now, and I will write about them as well. There are many good things to say about freshwater pearls. However, it is a different pearl than the akoya, with different characteristics. It’s important to understand that, and in my opinion, we’re rapidly losing the appreciation for the differences.
So–why buy an akoya strand today, particularly a vintage one?
- First: Quality akoya pearls are prized above all for their luster and roundness. Fine akoyas have a glow about them.
- Second: Appreciate the difference in pearls types, and treasure them for what they are. Saltwater and freshwater pearls have different culturing methods, which result in higher and lower costs of production. In saltwater oysters, one pearl is produced per oyster, with a nucleated bead. In freshwater, dozens of pearls are produced in a single mussel at once.
- Third: In my opinion, akoyas may be going the way of the horse and buggy, as the market shifts to new and less expensive products. Buy a nice old strand now, while they are still available. Do your part to preserve a piece of jewelry history.