Here again with information we believe will be of interest to you, although we are taking a slight detour from our “Legend of El Mechudo” series (while I finalize the short video) and because many have asked us how Mabe pearls (or half-pearls, as they are also known) are produced, and how come they end with with a dome-like or hemispherical shape.
Some people think Mabe pearls are just pearls that have been cut in half (on the first photo we see a pearl cut in half –sometimes called 3/4 pearls- and a Mabe to its right), or when they see the Mabe still in their host-shell they may comment that it is obvious that the pearl is growing from the shell and that it will eventually become detached from it, or that they are “aborted pearls” and they just needed more time to “pop out” of the shell, a fully fledged and normal pearl, but they are mistaken.
Let us begin by explaining a bit about the origin of the equivalent of the Mabe pearl in Nature, followed by some of the initial techniques for their cultivation, until we revisit some of the modern-day techniques employed to grow this beautiful product.
But first: the natural origin of these “attached pearls”… a product that has been known under the name of “Blister Pearls” and of which we have already discussed in detail, but we will shortly review in this post as well.
As the name implies, these natural pearls resemble “skin blisters”. Many of these pearls look like a “bubble” on the inner shell of the pearl oyster, hence the name “blister pearl” is so appropriate.
These pearls are produced when certain boring organisms (such as drill-mussels or boring polychaete worms) produce little tunnels in the shell; eventually they come in direct contact with the soft organs of the oyster, particularly with the mantle: the organ responsible for the production of the nacreous shell of these molluscs. The oyster then uses its mantle to “defend” itself against the damage caused by these organisms.
If these “blisters” reach a good size, have a nice shape and have some beauty, they are then processed (cut from the shell) and then set unto jewelry. Thus, this type of pearl would be the easiest to produce, if ever a person attempted to produce them, both experimentally or commercially.
The First Cultured Blister Pearls
The origin of the first cultured blister pearls emerges from ancient China. That’s right, something like 13 centuries ago (from the V to IX century), when Buddhist monks managed the production of what for many was simply “a miracle” or “a kind of magic”. But to understand this “miracle” we also have to understand the situation of China-and its monks and population- at that time period.
Monks that Monkey Around
As with other monks of the time, these Buddhist monks lived in monasteries, were they practiced the contemplation of nature, meditated and, generally speaking, we can say that many enjoyed a lot of “free time”. Some of the monks may have noticed that in their ponds, where they practiced the cultivation of fish, some pearly mussels also developed, and one thing led to another: they found a way of introducing small lead figurines inside these mussels, and attached these between the shell and mollusk’s mantle; eventually, these little metal figurines were coated with nacre and had the shapes seen in the next image: little “Pearl Buddhas” (image taken from this site).
And what use did these mini-Buddhas served? Well, for many things including:
Religious Propaganda: little has changed over time and even less so among some religions that use some “miracles” to keep their “flocks” or to obtain new followers. A vast majority of the people of the ancient world believed that pearls were of divine origin, so that only a god or powerful spirit being (such as an angel) could produce them. If I happen to have a shell with small pearls with the shape of Buddha, well I’m showing that he has the power to produce pearls in his own image… clearly divine!
Payment of Taxes: Probably more important than the divine origin of the pearls is their use for the payment of taxes. And in feudal China (exactly during that time period) pearls could be used to pay your taxes. We all know there are two things that are truly certain in Life: Death & taxes. This was very convenient.
To Create Jewelry: Perhaps this was also a reason to produce them, but from the quality of the pieces I have seen (mainly in low quality) I don’t believe it. They must have been used mainly to adorn temples (many fine examples can be seen in temples in China today).
But many centuries had to pass… until the 19th century, for the commercial culture and production of the Mabe Pearl. We’ll discuss this in a future entry.
Until next time!