Every day is an amazing opportunity for gazing into Creation and the perfection of Nature. When I look at sea-shells and their amazing patterns and their beautiful symmetry, or when I watch some little scallops swimming with grace or when you happen to see dozens of brown pelicans plunging into the sea all at the same time…well, it is understandable. But, sometimes you’ll end up having the same opportunity when examining the wares of a local street vendor in downtown Guaymas: it happened to me just the other day.
I sometimes walk the streets in downtown Guaymas looking for locally made sea-shell hand-crafts and this time I ended at Mr. Sansón Galindo’s curios shop; he has a nice selection of sea-shells and Mexican coins for sale, but something really caught my eye this time: just over a dozen or so hemispheres that displayed an intense golden color. I had to ask him about these because they looked very much like low-quality Mabe pearls from the “Penguin Winged Oyster” (Pteria penguin), a close relative of our beautiful “Rainbow Lipped Oyster” (P. sterna)… I actually began thinking this vendor was trying to pass off these “junk quality” Mabe for our “Cortez Mabe” but no, he was not. Instead he offered these as “Squid Pearls”.
So, he told me about how these are collected by some fishermen and then left to dry up, are then “peeled” and finally sold. He told me these were “true Gems” and held up a key-chain of his that had two of these “pearls” crudely affixed with resin. I had to get one for analysis and for just $50 pesos (roughly $5 USD) the price was not a fortune to spend for a “true gem”. So I purchased a few of these for closer examination.
Provenance: the Origin of these “Pearls”
Well, if these belong to a squid, the most obvious source had to be a “Diablo Squid” as some fishermen call them, but more commonly known as the “Humboldt Squid” or Dosidicus gigas. We are quite familiar with these delicious critters because in Guaymas there is an important fishery of these mollusks, and we –even without looking for them- have been able to catch in the vicinity of our pearl farm…without much effort: you just have to be very careful they don’t tear your flesh to shreds with their powerful beak and they terrible spine covered suckers!
Well…these squid don’t have shells and they don’t even secrete any kind of pearl-like substance. The hardest parts of their bodies being the “beak” (looks like a parrot-beak) in the animal’s mouth and the “pen”, a translucent feather-like structure that offers the squid’s mantle a solid attachment point for some muscles (click on the link if you want to learn more about the Squid’s Anatomy). And every time we ate one of these we never found anything resembling a “pearl”. So, where could these “squid half-pearls” have come from???
When I interrogated the street vendor he told me that these “pearls” were found inside the calamari’s eye. He showed me a couple of “untreated pearls” and these had some dried-up crust around them, once this was removed you could see the golden-colored “pearl”. An eye for an eye…aye, Captain! I guess it never occurred to me to cut open a squid’s eye, nor gulp it down with some lemon juice and chili sauce…that’s why I never found this item before!!! Eyes are usually discarded…aren’t they?
So, we now know where they come from…but what are they? Searching in my old textbooks I found that the only possible thing would be the “lenses” (described in some places as: …”a hard, marble-like ball object”). And it is such an amazing object…done perfectly. Its shape is a hemisphere, like that of a high-rise Mabe pearl (12 mm) and with a perfectly round diameter (14.6 mm). The dome of this lens displays a bit of iridescence, although it has cracked due to dehydration. A layer or protein flaked off the pearl and seems to have a thickness similar to that of a contact-lens. Its weight…being made of protein it feels very light (1.3 grams, a similar sized Mabe will weigh 2.2 grams). I just had to give it a name…”lens” is just too cold for this amazing object, so I gave it a new name: “CalaMabe” (joining the word “Calamari” and “Mabe”).
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder
But the beautiful part of it is not really its “dome”, but the flat, bottom portion of the “CalaMabe” this is the part that jewelers would use to attach the Mabe to a piece of jewelry, but this is the part I would NOT cover, this would be the part I would display. Why? Because it is here where you can see the “Eye”. What I call the “Eye” is a weird or perplexing thing because there is a unique optical effect there: you slowly move the “calamabe” to and fro and you will see as if there is a “floating-halo-like-eye” (think of the “Eye of Sauron” in the “Lord of the Rings trilogy”, excluding the Black Tower, the flames and the million screaming orcs) that follows you…truly mesmerizing. It might just…become…my preciousss…
I was unable to capture this effect with my video camera, not having a good close-up focus, but if you still want to review the video it is here for you (the video’s audio is in Spanish at present, but will add subtitles in English in a couple of months, just after harvest):
Eye of Sauron? No! A Calamabe Pearl!
A New Option: The Pearl’s Drill-Hole
Comparing drill-holes: true pearl vs. imitation pearl
Analyzing Pearl Jewelry:
Orient & Overtones on Pearls.
Orient:A remarkable phenomenon produced by light being reflected and refracted by the pearl layers, which produces an inner glow. The finer the pearl layer (aragonite crystal), the better the orient of the pearl. (Source)
Water Test on Light Colored Pearls.
Water Test on Dark Colored Pearls:
Comparing light and dark pearls in Water:
Imitation or Fake Pearls:
Pearls from the Sea of Cortez:
This little “test”… this is yet another one of those “universal” relics that serve to identify pearls, and people around the world are still using it to prove that a pearl is pearl (and not an imitation) and that -unfortunately- is simply inaccurate. But the beauty of a myth is how we can demystify it. Let us first unravel the inner workings of this sophisticated dental identification system.
The Dental Identification System or “Tooth Test”
The reason why it is called the “Tooth Test” is because it uses your teeth as the main source for confirmation. How can we apply it? Many people will say that the pearl should be “bitten” gently between the pre-molars, yet others say it should be gently bitten with the canines or the incisors (or front teeth) and yet others state that the pearl should be rubbed on the incisors. Which is the correct method?
The best way to do this test -in our experience- is by holding the pearl between your fingers and then rubbing it against one of your upper teeth (incisors), near the area in contact with the soft tissue (gums) of the mouth, but not above nor on top of this tissue (I forgot to mention that it is essential that the user’s teeth must be clean). We will use a slow sideways movement (see diagram) of the pearl upon the tooth, do this slowly and applying some pressure or force upon the tooth, since we want the pearl in intimate contact with the tooth. What are we going to feel? One effect we will notice will be a “gritty/sandy” sensation, as if we were scratching a blackboard (remember how your teachers would do that?). As sound travels through our teeth and bones, it is even possible to hear a faint “scratching/rasping” sound.
What if the pearl is false? Depends on the imitation. For example, if the fake or imitation pearl is of the economical (or “cheap”) variety, it will feel very light (not heavy) and, when the tooth test is applied it would feel smooth. But in other types of imitations -such as with “Shell-Pearls”- the weight of the “pearl” would be heavier against your tooth (the interior of this imitation is a kind of ceramic), but the “pearl” will feel smooth and no scratching/grating will be felt on your dental piece.
Now, how about a “Majorica pearl”? Ah! Excellent question, because this is the most common imitation available. Well, this so-called “pearl” would have a “good weight” -similar to that of a pearl due to its glass-bead core- and may also yield a “scratching/grating” sound. In this way it will feel “rough”, similar to a real pearl. But is the “Mallorca Pearl” a real pearl then? No, this is not evidence enough, there are many other tests available (see the entry of “The Myths of Pearl and Oyster # 4“), but these imitations are indeed trying to imitate a pearl in the best way possible.
But in order to understand the scratching/grating upon the tooth when we use this test, we have to go to a place we have not really examined in detail: the pearl’s surface. With the help of a microscope … we will find apparent so far.
Pearls -the vast majority- have a sort of “fingerprint” on its surface. This is known as the “spiral pattern, and formed several different spiral types, depending on the species of oyster that forms the pearl: each type of pearl could be distinguishable from another just by comparing their spirals, almost in the way we compare Human fingerprints today. Unfortunately it is difficult to obtain these images without the aid of a microscope (100 magnification at least), but the attached image can help us understand better.
Now, we’ve talked about the spirals because this is very important in order to understand what happens when we have the pearl-tooth interaction.
Let us understand some of the features in our teeth: they have an uneven surface and they are coated with a bio-enamel known as “dentin” and this material is much stronger than the pearl’s nacre (dentin has a hardness of 5.0 on the Mohs scale, while the pearl has a hardness between 2.5 and 4.0 Mohs). So, in essence, what we do when we rub a pearl against our tooth is that we ARE scratching the pearl’s surface: the tooth’s uneven surface violently scratches the pearl’s spirals. Yes, this bad method of pearl identification will damage our pearls and will actually lower their value.
But now, why does the “Majorica Pearl” have a response similar to that of a real pearl? Again, you have to go where we can not easily see: the surface of these imitations. Unfortunately I don’t own a digital microscope to take pictures of these imitations, but let me use the following picture to explain the phenomenon: the image of the left (photo credit) is dry mud/clay. Rapid drying of the humidity in the mud allowed the surface crack or flake , giving rise to these marks or stitches. And what does this have to do with an imitation pearl like the “Majorica Pearl”? Well, these imitations are made by applying several thin coats of varnish/lacquer/paint some or all which are UV treated in order to dry them up quickly, and the paint ends up having a similar texture as that of the paint, allowing for the effect of roughness or grittiness…similar to that of the spirals on a pearl.
Now what does all this mean to you? Basically, you that you CAN NOT trust the famous “tooth test” because:
- If you use it on a valuable pearl,you will cause some damage on it and you will lower its value.
- If you use it on some imitations, you may identify an imitation pearl as a pearl.
- If you own polished pearls, you may confuse them with imitation pearls.
So how can you identify a pearl correctly ? For there are many different ways … and we will write about these practical methods in the near future.
Learning tricks of the trade is something that we have done since we began researching, back in 1993, and this of course not only involves pearl oysters, but their magnificent product: the pearl. But a thing that has always bothered us are “fake pearls” or imitations. For this reason we have come up with this series. Some time ago, back in 2004, Manuel, Enrique and I took several pearls and imitations and filmed a video of their reaction to the famous “flame test”. Bibliographic sources mentioned that the artificial or false pearls burn on contact with fire, while real pearls can survive this process without damage or with minor damage. So, are we to just blindly believe in this? Let’s try it and see what happens!!! And this video was the result of this experimentation. The results surprised us too, but if we obtained important information. So please watch this video first:
We learned several things when “playing with fire.” The first one is that pearls, both authentic and imitation, obey “Murphy’s Law” in the sense that even if they look “OK” to touch they are not: they become extremely hot! and thus are difficult to manipulate with your fingers right after the 7 seconds under an open flame. So, if you plan to perform this little experiment on your own, use some tweezers and caution to manipulate the pearl. But for now, let’s describe the results, pearl by pearl:
The first pearl to undergo the flame test was a freshwater-pearl of Chinese origin. This pearl was submitted to artificial staining to acquire a dark color and it even had a good appearance, since it even had good iridescence. But after only seven seconds under fire we noticed the following changes:
1. The pearl’s drill-hole was severely affected, its nacre becoming almost pulverized, this in effect extended the drilling area (made the drill hole larger). The pearl’s surface was seriously damaged, like the damage caused by the sun and the environment in an oyster shell after about 10 years of exposure.
2. The pearl displayed small cracks in various parts of its surface, which radiate or spread from small “bubbles” that formed in the pearl’s surface. Before the flame was applied, these were non-existent.
3. The pearl lost much of its luster and color, becoming duller and less appealing.
So we can conclude that artificially colored pearls (or those that have been subject to some types of processing such as bleaching) are more sensitive to fire and can be destroyed with the flame test… but not burned. The ash or soot on the pearl is easily removed with a rag.
Test Results: Not Passed (or 50% passed).
Naturally Colored Cortez Pearl:
Our Pearls are never subjected to any “embellishment” processes; this actually means that they are never polished, nor bleached, nor dyed … so it was not strange that the “flame test” -in the same 7 seconds time-span as that of the Freshwater pearl- had no visible negative effects: we could find no cracks, no little “bubbles”, no change in the pearl’s appearance. What was most striking was to see that it was more difficult to remove the soot from of this pearl. Finally, there was no perceptible change in the of nacre around the pearl’s drill hole, nor in the pearl’s luster or its color.
Test Result: Passed!
Imitation pearl: “Shell Pearl”:
Before discussing the results I want to explain something about these imitations. They are the best imitations we have had a chance to see and analyze. Many suggest that “Mallorca pearls” are the best, but we believe these imitations are superior for several reasons:
1. Have a center of ceramic, which gives them a good weight … like a pearl.
2. They have several layers of paint or varnish. Each layer is of characteristics and two of these layers are semi-translucent so give an effect that is added on the base color layer. The final layer is apparently a protective layer and gives the “sheen” or luster to the pearl. Layers of “color”, in green and purple-are printed in a translucent coating using a “newspaper” or dot-matrix style, thus these two colors seem to “float” on top of the jet-black color that coats the ceramic bead. What do I mean by this? Consider using the image below for better understanding.
These imitations (for information on their manufacture process, see here) caused a “craze” in the year 2000. In that year, they were successfully introduced into the market through the famous Gem, Watch & Jewelery Fair, and many were misled by these very good imitations. Pearls that were “affected” by these imitations were the Tahitian black pearl and white South Sea Pearls of Australia. As you can see in the photos, it is very easy to confuse these pearls with a naked eye.
And although they are very good imitations … they do feel fake when you touch them: this is where they just “lost their magic.” Certainly, a high quality pearl is difficult or impossible to imitate, but for most pearls … specially those that are subject to rutinary processing and end up with a uniform look, imitations will be somewhat easy to produce.
Well, let’s get to the results: the “Shell Pearl” required twice the length of time (14 seconds) under the influence of the flame in order to burn in a manner proper for imitations, this due to its protective outer-cover, which protects it from chemical and mechanical damage, and it seems to have a fire retardant effect . However, this outer-coating can become damaged easily (with scratches) and this facilitates the burning of the “pearl”. In the video you can see how this imitation suffers from severe damage on its surface layers and a yellow-colored area affected will be seen on the area affected by heat.
Test Result: Failed!
Cheap Imitation Pearl (Plastic)
This kind of imitation is the one usually found in most economic products, such as in rosaries, small girls “jewelry” and economic bijoux jewelry. In this case the product is made out of plain plastic beads (polyethylene) with a simple paint covering. They are recognized immediately as false by their appearance, for its light weight and the presence of tell-tale “chips” (since these are usually made with molded plastic, they will have these), worthy of any product of very poor quality.
There is really is not worth talking about these imitations … in just 7 seconds under a flame they will burn and light up, we’ll have thick black smoke and the piece will end up as a small mass of molten plastic. The they are are the most fun to burn!!!
Test Result: Failed!
Mallorca or Majorica Pearl:
This is the famous “pearl”, which everyone wants to try with this test. First of all an external analysis: I can tell you that the external texture of these imitations is usually rougher than that of a real pearl. This imitation is quite successful with “Akoya” pearls (produced in Japan and China), since these pearls have little variety of colors (mostly in the white, yellow and cream-beige range) and their shape is almost always round and in sizes from 6 to 9 mm indiameter. Again: the more “clone-like” the pearls become after processing, the easier it is to imitate them.
The “Majorica Pearls” are made with a glass bead that -supposedly- has been made using “real pearl powder”. Even if this were true, it hardly matters because this can never be observed under the coat of paint. The “paint coatings” of these imitations are made using a “special recipe” which includes sardine (fish) scales (using a “special treatment”) which is referred to as “Pearlescence”, and several coats of this varnish are applied to this glass bead, which also must be “baked” or dried using special procedures (including UV light). This matters little after 8 seconds under fire: the layer of varnish is burned and left with a terrible appearance… leaving exposed areas of a white glass bead behind if you try to remove the sooth and carbonized paint.
Test Result: Failed!
This video (in Spanish) depicts the manner in which these “faux pearls” are made (and it seems that they are no longer producing these imitations in Mallorca, Spain):
- The “Flame Test” can be very destructive on pearls, both with lower quality (processed) pearls and very especially on “faux perles” or pearl imitations.
- Pearls and Imitations can become Hot after the use of the flame test: handle with caution.
- Pearls can become damaged with heat and fire: they are organic gems and they have some water in their composition, so do avoid these to ensure for proper care of your pearls.
Coming soon: Demystifying other pearl myths …
Myth #2: The Aquaculture of Pearls in Spain
It is fascinating to meet with people from all over the world, specially if they are seasoned travelers…they always have interesting stories to share with us and we appreciated their talk and sharing of experiences, specially when they have previously visited other pearl farms in Japan, Tahiti or Australia EXCEPT when someone comes up with their “Mallorca Pearl Farm Visit”. The typical description is that they have seen divers retrieving the always perfectly round pearls that seem to come in only 4 basic colors.
Spain is, indeed, a great aquaculture producer…but its main products revolve around edible shellfish production: scallops, mussels and edible oysters. These species of bivalves are usually produced in the northern part of Spain, on the coastline of Galicia, where they grow three very tasty and valuable species: the Mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis), the “Vieira” or Queen scallop (Pecten maximus) and the european rock oyster (Ostrea edulis). But none of these species are able of producing nacreous pearls (they would produce “calcium concretions” or “non-nacreous pearls“) so they cannot look like the “Mallorca Pearl”. Let us look into this more closely then…
The so called production of these famous “european pearls” is found in the city of Manacor, Spain, and… where is this place??? It is a beautiful spot in the Mediterranean Sea (see map, courtesy of Google Earth), an area that has not been known or recognized -not today nor in ancient times- as a great pearl producer. Also, take note that Manacor is on an island…but not right next to the sea but some kilometer away from it. This can only mean then that the pearls and their oysters are being grown in special ponds or lakes or maybe even in rivers… but examining the city with Google Maps or any similar program will not reveal any evidence of large lakes/ponds suitable for a grand scale production of pearl oysters nor mussels.
Very well then… they must grow the pearls and their oysters in the ocean and haul them into the city as needed. What variety of pearl oyster could they use to produce their pearls? Let us do a bit of research…hmm, we seem to find very few sources that include information on pearl fisheries -past and present- inside the Mediterranean Sea. Let us use Sohei Shirahi’s excellent book “Pearls & Pearl Oysters of the World” and let us see…weird… no pearl oysters reported in that area of the Mediterranean. The only information we find is that from another great book -actually a “grand classic” on the subject- Kunz and Stevenson’s (1908) “The Book of the Pearl” which cites that a man by the last name of Vassel states that in 1896 , the “Akoya Pearl Oyster” (Pinctada imbricata) made its way into the Mediterranean by way of the Suez Canal and can now be found in limited areas of Tunisia, North Africa. Yet, there is another pearl oyster in the region: the “Mediterranean Winged Oyster” (Pteria hirundo) which can be found in Turkey and Italy. There is not a single report of these species for the Spanish island of Mallorca. The following map can give us a clearer idea of the worldwide distribution of pearl oysters (based on Shirai, 1994).
Well then, if there are NO pearl oysters nor pearly mussels in Spain nor in its island of Majorca… what gave rise to this myth? It is hard to know, but we all know how half-truths have an easy way of propagating… like summer grass on fire. It is a fact that the Spaniards have always stated that their so-called “pearls” are just as beautiful -or better- than their cultured pearl counterparts, or even state that their product is manufactured using “marine materials” but I have never seen an advertisement or article that states that they “grow” their pearls inside living oysters. But some people are…that is for sure. For what reason or to what ends? You can be the judge. So, let us go to an “official” “Majorca Pearls” website, from where I extracted the following text:
“Majorca pearls are imitation pearls manufactured on the Spanish island of Majorca in the Mediterranean. Local women there have specialized in the artistic fabrication of faux pearls since the 19th Century. These pearls have such a resemblance to the natural cultivated pearls that only experts can tell them apart.”
That last part about only experts being able to tell them apart is a hoax (in future posts we will try to help you identify all sorts of pearls, including fakes…which are very easy).
But for now I believe that it is quite clear that these imitations or “faux perles” are not grown from live organisms, but a product of Human manufacture. But, for those that will still believe otherwise… I have -for the first time on the Internet- a perfectly preserved specimen of the very elusive “Majorcan Pearl Oyster” (scientifically named: Plasticus artifactus). The specimen can be admired at our Museum-like display at the Pearl-Shop in Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico… so stop for a visit, don’t miss on this unique opportunity!
If you have questions or an interesting subject to suggest, please feel free to make your comments known on this Blog…see you in a couple of weeks!
A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to review CIBJO‘s new Pearl book (also known as the “Blue Book”). For those not familiar with this “famous” book or who CIBJO is, let me present this information in a simple way: CIBJO is an international confederation of national jewelery trade organizations, and amongst the many services they provide the offer guidance (guidelines) on how to refer to when you sell or market a product that falls into their umbrella: mainly gems and jewelery. Stated in another way, a jeweler might use these CIBJO guidelines to sell his products in the most honest/honorable way possible. It can also be used by the client to demand more information on the product of interest. Unfortunately, the most common issue is that both client and vendor are unaware of this valuable source of information, or what is worse: that the jeweler/seller exploits the ignorance of the customer to achieve a fraudulent sale.
The fraudulent sale of gems of all kinds, diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls, is more common in developing countries, and this is partly due to low awareness among the general population about the characteristics and attributes of gemstones which they seek to acquire. To this we add the greed factor of many and/or their total ignorance and/or the fact that they too were “ripped off” and so we end up inside a great well of unease and distrust. Not one, nor two … but dozens of times we have witnessed some deception and fraud in jewelry sales, and for us -pearl producers and jewelry makers- this issue becomes more sensitive in cases involving pearls.
For this reason, and to celebrate the publication of the new CIBJO-Blue Book: Pearls (this link allows you to download the PDF file directly from CIBJO) we will discuss about the various “myths” that allow for the deception and fraud in the purchase or acquisition of pearl jewelry. We hope that this series will indulge to your liking… even to your dislike (some will end up with a terrible feeling after reading these series of articles), but my hope is that this will help you to avoid a terrible mistake or being cheated and deceived. So, let’s start with this series of “myths” …
Myth # 1: “Majorca Pearls”
This is probably the most common myth or fraud of which we are known. How many times have we had a visit from a proud owner of a double-string necklace of “Majorca Pearls”? Countless times. How many times have we been told how when they visited the island of Mallorca, Spain, they even had a chance of visiting the “pearl farm” and could see how the oysters were stripped of their beautiful “pearls”? Again: countless … and how many times have we had to repeat that “Mallorca pearls” are just false, simulated or imitation pearls or -isn’t French just great at making things sound so romantic?- “Faux Perles“? Untold times. In fact, my favorite phrase is: “The only part of a ‘Majorca Pearl’ that is truly Pearl can be found in its trade name” (McLaurin dixit).
But hey! Don’t take my word for it, but instead… use the CIBJO Pearl Book and just go to page # 6 in paragraph 4.4.4 entitled “Imitation or Simulated”, and it unmistakeably identifies them as fake pearls. There, clearly mentioned, are the brand names of the most common imitation pearls, and it states how you may not use these to deceive a customer and -in this particular case- they HAVE TO BE described as follows: “Imitation Majorica Pearls”. So we have have an international authority that confirms that these famous “pearls” are simply … imitations. And this in itself is no problem unless you are told that if they are either natural or cultured pearls: then it is FRAUD.
How could the problem have started? In most cases -such as in department stores- the person in charge of selling the items does not have the foggiest idea of what they are actually selling: they have been equally trained to sell diapers and jewelry -in the best parrot-like way- but they have been told what to say from others that don’t know a thing about pearls. But this does not exempt them from fraud … and it does not matter if the jewelry item (be it a necklace or bracelet or earrings) came with a certificate of authenticity: a review of its text will inform you that they are not real pearls, but most of the time it will employ such verbiage “semi-cultivated pearls” or “Made using Marine materials”. This will be discussed in more detail in the coming weeks.