The only jewels created by a living animal are pearls. A natural pearl of worth is found in less than 1 in every 10,000 wild oysters. Intriguingly all pearl oysters are born male. It takes over three years for the oyster to transform into a female.
Pearls can be categorised as saltwater cultured pearls or freshwater.
The three major types of saltwater pearls are: Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea. Only 5% of pearls sourced each year are of these types. These oceanic oysters only produce one pearl at a time.
However, the freshwater pearl accounts for the large majority of pearls produced. Freshwater mussels are prolific and they can create up to fifty pearls at any one time. Mother of pearl (nacre) is the shell of the pearl oyster.
Probably the most famous pearl in the world is Le Peregrina. The 500-year-old pearl is pear shaped. Its previous owners included the King of Spain, Napoleon Bonaparte and Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton bought Le Peregrina in 1969 as a Valentine’s Day gift for Elizabeth Taylor. He bid $37,000 at auction in which the Spanish royal family were also bidding. They must have been sad to lose as this fabulous piece was once part of the crown jewels of Spain. Elizabeth Taylor was said to have lost the jewel only to find her young Pekingese dog chewing on it! Years later Elizabeth Taylor commissioned Cartier to set the pearl into a ruby and diamond necklace, with the impressive pearl suspended so that it could be featured. The Cartier design was said to be inspired by Diego Velázquez portraits of Spain’s Queen Margarita & Queen Isabel wearing the pearl as a necklace.
This magnificent and historically significant pearl was auctioned by Christie’s in 2011 for $11 million.
In the early years pearl diving was incredibly dangerous with up to a 50% mortality rate. Most deaths were caused by shark attacks or decompression sickness aka the bends. If the diver was to ascend too quickly nitrogen comes out of the blood, forming bubbles which block tiny blood vessels. In the twentieth century strict regulations were introduced to protect the divers.