Delivering her lecture “Dewdrops from Heaven”, Maggie Campbell-Pedersen wore a beautiful pearl and coral necklace, featuring a large bead of ‘decayed’ or dead coral and cornflake pearls. Maggie, an international organic gems expert, was speaking at an event sponsored jointly by the Friends of Te Papa and the Wellington Decorative and Fine Arts Society (WeDFAS). Over the past few years our two organisations have worked together to bring outstanding overseas experts to Wellington. Maggie was this year’s guest.

Elizabeth Kay jotted down some of the highlights of Maggie’s lecture:

  • People have treasured pearls since antiquity. Ancient Chinese believed that pearls were made of dew drops from heaven, caught by oysters leaping from the sea, and wearing them would ward off dragons.
  • Store pearls in a soft bag so the surface is not scratched and the lustre destroyed. Clean pearls with a piece of soft muslin or cotton, very slightly damp and keep away from hairspray, perfume or other chemicals. Never go to the swimming pool in your pearls!
  • A pearl is not formed by a grain of sand inserted into the oyster shell. Instead a tiny piece of oyster tissue is put into the oyster, or else a tiny piece of mussel shell ground into a bead, called a seed, is used. Around this the oyster, or other shellfish such as mussels, wraps the nacre, the term used to describe the layers of pearl which develop. Cultured, fresh water and natural pearls are all real pearls.
  • The most expensive pearls remain the baroque pearls of the South Seas, the black Tahitian pearls and the blisters pearls or Mabé pearls, which are half pearls that have been grown flush against the inside of the pearl oyster’s shell. These are very popular for jewellery.
  • China’s pearl farms are now so vast, real pearls are now affordable for many people, and fake pearls made of glass are no longer in such demand.
  • Pearl buttons stamped out of trochus (sea snail) shells were a huge industry in the 19th century but these days are rare. So treasure those old mother of pearl buttons in your button box.
  • Some types of shell such as the nautilus, which once were common, have been so overused in cheap decorative items they are now almost extinct. Sustainability is now a focus of the pearl industry.

Feature image: Pair of Japanese freshwater baroque Kasumi pearls (image courtesy of Kojima Pearl Company)