Contrary to popular lore, pearls aren’t necessarily formed when a grain of sand enters an oyster. That’s likely a myth. Rather, pearls form when a tiny organism (probably a parasite) enters a shell-producing mollusk (a group that includes oysters, mussels, clams, marine snails, and abalone).
As a defensive mechanism, the mollusk forms a protective crystalline substance around the irritant. This protective substance is called “nacre.” Nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and protein, and it is both lighter and stronger than concrete. (It’s also the same substance that forms the inside of the mollusk’s shell.) Nacre gives pearls their gem-like luster.
Natural pearls of real value occur very rarely, however. In fact, a pearl of value occurs in less than one of every 10,000 pearl oysters. Moreover, it can take at least three years for an oyster to coat an irritant with enough nacre to form a gem-quality pearl. Low-quality pearls are often the result of a pearl being “rushed out” of the oyster after less than a year. With these pearls, the coating of nacre is too thin to create adequate luster.
Cultured pearls help meet the high demand for real pearls. In the case of cultured pearls, a bead or piece of shell called mother of pearl is surgically inserted into the oyster. The inserted piece is also sometimes called the “nuclei.” The mollusk reacts to the nuclei the same way it would to a natural parasite by layering it with nacre, thereby forming a pearl.
Although saltwater pearls have historically been considered more valuable, thanks to their natural roundness and luster, freshwater pearls, which were once usually irregularly shaped, may now look more like their saltwater counterparts due to advances in pearl farming technology. See more about the different types of real pearls.
Finally, there are imitation pearls, which are usually made by dipping a glass bead in a solution made of fish scales. Because nacre has a distinct grit, it’s usually possible to tell the difference between a real and imitation pearl by running your teeth over them. An imitation pearl will feel smooth while a real pearl, natural or cultured, will feel gritty.
Accounts of Cleopatra VII’s (69-30 BCE) enchanting life story abound, but the story most likely to pique the interest of jewelry lovers involves a rather large and valuable pearl that the beautiful queen apparently drank!
According to the story, Cleopatra bet her lover Marc Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal. To prove herself (while showing off her opulence), she removed one of her earrings, which apparently contained one of two of the largest pearls known in the land, dissolved it in vinegar, and then drank it.
In the words of Pliny the Elder (23 - 79 A.D.), “She ordered the second course to be served. In accordance with previous instructions, the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar. She took one earring off, and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was wasted away, swallowed it.” And the bet was won.
Until recently, this story was thought to be mere myth, but research indicates that this trick is actually possible.
"All you need is vinegar and a pearl. In my experiments, I used a white vinegar sold in supermarkets. Wine vinegar was most common in the Greco-Roman world, so it is likely that's what Cleopatra used," classicist Prudence Jones of Montclair State University explained to Discovery News. The acetic acid in the vinegar reacts with the calcium carbonate in the pearl and produces calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide. Interestingly, the cocktail wouldn’t taste as acidic as straight vinegar because the calcium carbonate somewhat neutralizes the acid in the vinegar.
The effect isn’t instantaneous, however. It takes roughly “24 to 36 hours to dissolve a pearl weighing approximately one gram.” The end result is a translucent gel-like substance.
Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford University's Departments of Classics and History of Science, suggests that the myth—and its plausibility—may give us insight into the kind of clever character Cleopatra was:
“I think this research has convincingly demonstrated the technique that Cleopatra could have used to dissolve a pearl. We already know that this curious, intelligent queen carried out toxicological experiments," Mayor told Discovery News. "It's likely she softened the pearl in advance, then crushed it and placed it in a goblet to dazzle Marc Antony with her wealth and arcane scientific expertise.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Although it may seem like Apple Watches and FitBits dominate the smart jewelry scene, those two companies certainly aren’t your only options when it comes to the marriage of technology and accessories.
Whether you’d like to track your fitness, stay on top of notifications by the minute, or store special messages and photos from a loved one, there’s a beautiful piece of smart jewelry for you. The following are just four of the chic and innovative pieces that can help you seamlessly integrate fashion and organization.
Ringly produces cocktail rings as well as pendants and bangles—and they’re all smart. Ringly can track your activity levels and communicate those with your phone via Bluetooth technology. Using Ringly’s app, you can program your Ringly device to notify you if you get a notification on your phone (and you can choose the kind of notifications you receive). The jewelry will subtly vibrate when you receive one of these notifications.
Like Ringly, Altrius smart jewelry can “buzz” you when you receive certain notifications on your phone. The brand explains that by “reducing smartphone” dependance (i.e. not checking your phone every few minutes for notifications), you’ll reduce your daily stress and feel more in charge of your time. (That sounds like a pretty good deal!)
Love being in touch with your body? A Bellabeat Leaf attaches to your lapel or a special bracelet and monitors your heart rate, sleep patterns, and menstrual cycles; stores the info on your phone via Bluetooth; and even provides fitness recommendations through its app. Bellabeat has a six-month battery and a 14-day memory.
These stunning pearl pieces are unlike most pieces of smart jewelry. Instead of using Bluetooth technology, they use near-field communication (NFC). Each Galatea Momento Pearl piece contains an NFC chip that houses photos and recorded messages. These can be accessed by tapping the jewelry against an NFC-enabled phone. No special app required.
Do you wear smart jewelry?
Photos: Respective Brands
If you celebrated your birthday this month, you're probably aware that your birthstone is the majestic pearl (and Happy Birthday, to you!). Ancient people esteemed pearls for their beauty and rarity--and although we mostly rely on cultured pearls these days, their special magic endures. Pearls may be found in a variety of shades, but we often associate white with pearls.