It's hard enough to believe that a clam or oyster could take a tiny piece of sand and create something as strange and beautiful as a pearl. Given that this is in fact the case, it's not too much of a stretch to buy into the idea that such miracles of nature carry some sort of protective power.
Pearl specialist Koji Kawamoto, who hails from the small village in Japan where the process of culturing pearls was first discovered in 1893 by Kokichi Mikimoto, insists that this is true.
"We say that if you are wearing pearls, you are protected," Kawamoto said. "Pearls are amulets."
This goes for the entire rainbow of pearls, not just the white ones. And Kawamoto, in addition to leading a free pearl seminar at La Tour at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, will be bringing pearls from across the globe for his Friday through Sunday show at Karats of Vail.
The classic cream-colored pearls, in spite of being the most widely recognized, are the ones that Kawamoto insists every woman should own - the Japanese Akoya. A larger version of these are the Australian white pearls of the South Sea, which also houses mollusks that produce golden pearls, whose colors range from deep gold to champagne. Kawamoto will also bring several fresh water pearls, which span nearly the full spectrum of shape and color, from lavender orbs to copper discs.
While he prides himself on his talent for what he calls "matchmaking" any given string with its ideal owner on sheer gut instinct as well as skin color, he uses the shining tints of the French Polynesian pearls to match directly with their potential wearer's eye color.
"If blue or green colored pearls match your eye color, you can compliment each other and the color of the pearls pop," Kawamoto said. "I am bringing almost all kinds and types of pearls, so people can compare and understand why specific ones are the perfect match for them."
Kawamoto's new line of pearls at Karats include highly unusual big, baroque pink strands and bronze-colored Keshi.
From irritant to antique
The rainbow of pearl colors stems from the shell where it grows. The phenomenon of pearl growth in nature is due to an irritant - such as a piece of sand - getting lodged into the soft tissue of an oyster or mussel. The creature's defense mechanism is a secretion of coating to cover the irritant and after many layers of coating, the surface becomes smooth, hard and dense. Thus, a pearl is born. The only difference with cultured pearls is that the insertion of the irritant is no accident - only shells proven to produce beautiful pearls are used and the irritant inserted is a shell bead nucleus more prone to result in a predictably shaped pearl.
In nature, a person would have to go through more than 100,000 oysters to find enough pearls to make a necklace and even then, it would be very difficult to find pearls that would look uniform enough to be put in the same necklace.
In the past, if such a strand were put together, it could be used to buy an entire mansion.
Today, Kawamoto said, nearly every piece of genuine pearl jewelry you come across is made only of cultured pearls.
"As Mikimoto expanded his cultured pearl production and cultured pearls gained acceptance in the 1930s, the value of natural pearls decreased dramatically," Kawamoto said. "A normal buyer could hardly notice the difference between a half-million-dollar strand of natural pearls and a strand of Japanese cultured pearls. Nowadays, natural pearls are only treated as antiques."
And of course, not all pearls you see are the real thing. If you have a set in your collection that you're unsure about, bring it to Kawamoto's seminar on Saturday, along with any other questions or curiosities about one of the natural world's most fascinating jewels.