Spurious Pearls








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Pearls have been coveted, rare and beautiful objects for thousands of years. Their difficult-to-harvest nature has always meant a larger price. Generally, that restricted pearls to wealthier owners. Ancient Romans were some of the first to find methods of faking a pearl (by coating glass beads in silver, then adding a second layer of glass). After that, all bets were off and many people attempted to create authentic-looking faux pearls. Three that dominated their own markets were those called Roman Pearls, those made with essence d’Orient, and those from the company Majorica.

Ancient Roman faux pearls being sold at Christie's
Ancient Roman faux pearls being sold at Christie’s

Unlike the Ancient Roman pearls, Roman Pearls were made using alabaster instead of glass. Alabaster is very soft and can be somewhat easily carved and rounded into beads. From here, to add a pearlescent luster, they added a coating made from the scales of the ablette fish (or the bleak in English). This was a great improvement over glass which would easily shatter. Using nature’s own natural shine became a trend in faux pearls.

A bleak fish
A bleak fish

A Frenchman by the name of Jacquin discovered another method using the fish scales. By soaking and kneading the scales in water, he could extract the protein that caused their brilliant shine: guanine. He called his discovery essence d’Orient (essence of the East). After filtering it and adding the protein to ammonia, the mixture was used to coat the inside of hollow glass spheres. The final step was filling the beads with wax!

A plate from Diderot's Encyclopedie Fig. 4 shows a woman descaling a fish. Fig. 2 and 3 is the blowing of fish scale into the glass spheres. In fig. 5 and 6, women are adding wax.
A plate from Diderot’s Encyclopedie
Fig. 4 shows a woman descaling a fish. Fig. 2 and 3 is the blowing of fish scale into the glass spheres. In fig. 5 and 6, women are adding wax.

Today, a more accurate method has been developed by the company Majorica. In 1952, they had developed a secret formula based on shells they had studied. A small glass bead is dipped in the formula up to 32 times which reproduces the way an oyster creates its own pearls. The frightening part of this process is the fact that all the Majorica pearls emerge, in several weeks, nearly identical. In nature, the process takes several years and all pearls have differences or blemishes! Industry has begun to beat nature at its own game.

Music: Fantasie in C major, D. 934 by Franz Schubert


Ancient Rome

Ogden, J. (1982). Glass enamel and faience. In Jewelry of the Ancient World (p. 139). Rizzoli.

Roman Pearls

Hebert, L. (1849). Pearl-Shell. In The Engineer’s & Mechanic’s Encyclopeadia (Vol. 2, p. 275). Kelley. 

Jacquin’s discovery

Raynal, C. (2005). L’invention de l’« essence d’Orient ». Revue D’histoire De La Pharmacie, 93(345), 167-168. Retrieved 2015, from http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/pharm_0035-2349_2005_num_93_345_5795

Nickels, J. (1862). Correspondence of Jerome Nickles. The American Journal of Science, 83(1000), 120-120. Retrieved 2015, from https://books.google.com/books?id=rI5GAQAAMAAJ

Majorica pearls

Chilton’s Jewelers’ Circular/keystone Directory (p. 496). (1984). Chilton Co.


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