A Meditation on Cultured Pearls
Quality Part II
Color and translucency are insufficient! A fine pearl must have that subtle misty iridescence that connoisseurs call orient, a glow that seems to emanate from inside the pearl and cling to its skin, like an early morning fog, a quality that led the medieval poet Thomas Campion to muse that pearls: “look like rosebuds fill’d with snow.”
Orient is not a characteristic found in all species of pearls. It is the defining characteristic of Southsea black pearls. Orient is sometimes found in Burmese pearls and in freshwater pearls from China. Orient may occur in Japanese Akoya pearls but it is more often a faux-orient resulting from pink dye.
Artists have a great appreciation of pearls. Iowa artist Sara Bell professes an ongoing love affair with the pearl. Bell devoted a year of study prior to executing her recent oil painting aptly titled “Pearl”. “My mother wore a natural pearl engagement ring that contained all the colors of the rainbow”. “I was frustrated” she said, “trying to find pearls in jewelry stores. The ones I saw were mostly plain opaque white. They didn’t look at all like my mother’s”. Perhaps the artist is not the only one who many be missing something here.
The precise realism of a painting entitled “Girl with Pearl Earring” by the Seventeenth Century Dutch master Vermeer fascinated Bell. His technique of painting a pearl closely mirrors the process by which nature creates the pearl. The paint is built up in many thin multi-colored layers. This is the same technique painters use to give a quality of aliveness to a subjects skin. In her own work Bell found she needed mixtures containing the entire range of primary and secondary colors to make a realistic rendering of the simple white orb. Her finished painting pulses with an uncanny resemblance to the real thing.
Water is an ancient term that has fallen into disfavor, but that very aptly connotes that beautiful combination of luster, translucency and overtone that characterize the finest of pearls. Jean-Baptist Tavernier, the great gem merchant of the Seventeenth Century, used the term to describe the essential elements of beauty in pearls as well as diamonds and other gems. In one passage he describes a pearl’s water as being “dead”. Water had a different though analogous meaning when used to describe a diamond. But, clearly it was more than just as a synonym for color.