I was 12 years old when my parents gifted me a beginning trio of pearls to build a complete necklace. It was a complete surprise. My mother’s jewellery box was filled with gorgeous gems and pearls, different stones on glittering necklaces and I was finally being introduced to that world.

Only a few, delicate pearls were neatly strung on the tiny silver chain, with a promise to be added onto with each special occasion. Birthdays, Christmases, celebrations and other holidays, a new little gem of the earth would be added to my collection. The small silk pouches would appear with a small pearl inside and each time I received another to add, the necklace had to be re-strung all over.

Add-a-pearl, as this is known, is not a new concept and dates back to the 19th century. Much like my mother’s idea, family members would gather together to purchase the set as an economical and affordable way to build a present, most starting when the child is a baby and adding to it at each celebration.

Juergens and Andersen, the main company of pearl jewelry was opened in 1854 in Chicago. According to the Pearl Girls Company, they launched the campaign, Add A Pearl Necklace in 1915 as a way for families to assemble a natural pearl necklace over time.

Now, more than a hundred years later, the tradition continues. Rene Crawford, who formerly worked for a high-end Calgary jewelry store downtown, was the main buyer of pearls for the company and sold the idea to many families.

“Mostly it was grandparents,” says Crawford. “They would start them up and that way they could present a gift and hopefully by the time the girl was 16 years old, [she] would have a full strand.”

By the time I was 16, my necklace was filled with 60 pearls. The string sat inside a deep blue box, the white silk surrounding the pearls delicately as if they were still encased inside their pearlescent oyster shell.

As a teenager I treasured the necklace. I only wore it on special occasions and knew I had received something so elegant and mature. I wasn’t aware of the cost of a pearl necklace, but I did know how special it was.

“An average strand, using six and a half to seven or eight millimetres [pearls], that would cost you probably about $5,000, so the add-a-pearl program was really good because you could just keep adding to it,” says Crawford.

“Most people can’t afford a five to six thousand dollar strand, but if they pick a pearl and the whole family can contribute because the child is registered, so it’s just economical and then the end result is… a presented strand of pearls.”

Researching the history of the add-a-pearl necklace took me through the development of pearls themselves and the transitioning market from natural to cultured pearls throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Natural pearls are organic gems that form in the bodies of certain molluscs, usually around a microscopic irritant and without any human intervention. Composed of centric layers of ‘nacre,’ the same as the base of mother-of-pearl, which is the smooth shining iridescent substance forming on the inner layer of the shell.

This process generally takes 18 months to possibly three years for the pearl to form and the natural formation can be tricky, since some oysters don’t form a pearl every time or create irregular shapes. Not surprisingly, pearls almost completely disappeared until the culturing technique began.

Pearl1“It’s heartwarming being part of such a time-honoured tradition, where my entire family came together to build me a strand of glistening, snow white pearls.” Photo by Casey Richardson.

The real beginning for pearls came when Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of Japan’s Mikimoto pearls, created the world’s first cultured pearl. In the 1850s, natural pearls were being harvested at increasingly high rates and Mikimoto wanted to find a way to produce his own oyster beds.

Mikimoto was known for his desire to make pearls more accessible, saying “My dream is to adorn the necks of all women around the world with pearls.”

By sorting through different types, Mikimoto discovered that Akoya oysters produced the best pearls and could increase production of pearls by introducing a particle into the flesh of the oyster to stimulate secretions of ‘nacre’ that build up in hundreds of thousands of layers, creating a lustrous pearl.

By 1896, Mikimoto was granted his first patent for cultured pearls and continued on establishing his company. Cultured pearls are most commonly found now and Mikimoto was prevalent in training other countries in pearl culturing techniques, but his company’s pearls are still seen as the best quality today.

Crawford was a buyer of Mikimoto pearls and chose the Japanese pearls since they have the finest quality and lustre, stating, “Mikimoto is the primary founder.” Pearls for her were the epitome of simple and classic elegance.

“I love pearls and that’s why when I when I was a buyer for Mikimoto, you can’t say that they’re going out of style [as] they always will be in style,” says Crawford.

For my mother, who also worked in high-end jewelry, she saw the opportunity to give a gift to me that was built from my family. My grandparents and my parents added piece by piece to make a complete circle.

After going through the history of pearls and the add-a-pearl program, having a necklace for myself means so much more now. It’s heartwarming being part of such a time-honoured tradition, where my entire family came together to build me a strand of glistening, snow white pearls. 

Editor: Colin Macgillivray | cmacgillivray@cjournal.ca 

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