Lit from Within

It was our wedding anniversary. We were dining at a restaurant on the Brooklyn waterfront, the kind of place where everyone dresses well. A river view at sunset, beautiful flowers everywhere, a pianist playing inoffensively somewhere in back. The food was disappointing, but the evening was redeemed by a woman at a nearby table. She was Japanese (at least that was the language she was speaking) and she wore a choker-length strand of perfectly matched, blue-gray Akoya pearls.

I knew they were Akoyas because of their size—small, since the oysters that produce them are small—and their luster. Those little pearls broadcast their glow across the room; they were both understated and spectacular. This, I thought, is what pearls are really about. The mothball-size South Sea pearls I see on so many women, impressive as they are, don’t possess this knockout elegance.

I suppose you’ll want to see them. I happen to own such a strand. Mine are just under 8 millimeters—mid-size for Akoyas, which don’t get bigger than about 9.5 millimeters. But they glow largely. Or, dare I say, bigly.

Blue-gray Akoya pearls with gold rondels by Nan Irwin

Akoyas were the first saltwater pearls to be cultured, in a technique patented by Kōkichi Mikimoto in 1916. The cultured pearls our mothers owned—white, or slightly pink—were Akoyas. When I was a college student in the early 1970s, cultured pearls were emblems of the Good Girls of the past, scorned by the rebellious young women I hung out with. You couldn’t carry off a demure strand of graduated pearls if you weren’t wearing a bra.

I was missing the point of those pearls, which wasn’t their gentility but their luster. When you look at a pearl, you’re looking at layers and layers—and layers and layers—of nacre, the substance a mollusk secretes to protect itself and smooth its way in life. Nacre is made of hexagonal platelets of aragonite—a form of calcium carbonate—separated by sheets of elastic biopolymers. Those platelets are roughly as thick as the wavelength of visible light. So when light shines through nacre, it creates the play of iridescent color that makes a pearl a pearl.

Think about this: how many kinds of layers build up into something beautiful? Not the layers of dead skin cells that make up dermatitis and dandruff. Nor the layers of dental plaque that harden into tartar. Nor the layers of old floor polish they used to call ‘waxy yellow buildup’. Okay, I do have an artist friend who creates gorgeous canvases using layers and layers of tinted beeswax, a technique called encaustic painting. She’s the exception. Her paintings have a depth and richness only such layering can create, below. You can see more of her work here.

In this encaustic painting by Joanne Mattera, layers of tinted beeswax create a jewel-like depth.

Nacre, of course, is the same thing as mother of pearl, the substance lining the shells of pearl-producing mollusks. Mother of pearl jewelry is not expensive, but it too has a bewitching luster. The Zuni brooch below is made from the pearlescent shell of the green snail. My husband bought it years ago because he thought it looked magical; I had to agree. Nacre—in all its forms—is balm for the eyes. And the fingers. And the soul.

Green snail shell brooch by Zuni artists Lee and Mary Weebothee

I’ve written about cultured pearls before: freshwater pearls from China in lurid colors, saltwater Tahitian and South Sea pearls as big as jawbreakers. I’ve fallen for all of them. But when I saw those small blue Akoyas on the self-possessed woman at the restaurant, I remembered that pearls are not a public statement but a private pleasure. I imagined they were a gift from her husband, seated across the table, and that they were part of the lore of that specific marriage. That was their true allure.

I’ve learned to look for the deep, mirrorlike luster that signifies a good pearl—even if said pearl isn’t perfectly round or has a bumpy surface. I figure I can either spring for one strand of absolutely perfect pearls—or, for the same money (or a lot less), acquire several strands of perfectly gorgeous imperfect pearls.

South Sea pearls, creamy white and baroque blue-white, from Nan Irwin

The two strands of South Sea pearls above, for example, are not the huge round ones that command huge prices. But they’re luminous as all get-out, and a joy to wear. People notice them, but I’m not wearing them to be noticed. I’m wearing them to amuse myself. Or console myself. As I said, they’re private.

Baroque pearl pendant by Michele Berman

The pearl above is more baroque—more irregularly shaped—than I’m usually attracted to. It looks kind of dental. But its luster is extraordinary: flashes of pink, lavender, pale green and blue. I don’t think I could wear an entire necklace of these, but I like to look at just this one.

One more pearl, below. I was going to make a ring of it, after I read that Cixi, the Dowager Empress of China (who I wrote about here), used to give out such rings as gifts. But I’m not sure I’d actually wear a ring like that, and it would almost certainly be expensive to make. So for now, it’s a small private treasure to be tucked away. The face you’re seeing is perfect; the other side has a few tiny pits in it. That’s where the setting will go—if I ever decide to set it.

Tahitian pearl, sourced by Nan Irwin


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