PEARL: Queen of gems

A feast of gems and jewellery will soon satisfy the thirst of gem and jewellery fans looking for something different or special. Facets 2002, scheduled to be held at the Colombo Hilton from September 9 to 11, will be the 12th International Gem and Jewellery show held by the Sri Lanka Gem Traders Association. Traders from different parts of the world will participate in this interaction of buyers and sellers.

(by Vimukthi Fernando) The exquisite gift from God. Precious, so it is. The 'single drop of rain from the heavens that finds the heart of an open oyster.' The 'third eye' of the Buddha; the enlightenment, crystallisation of light or the spiritual essence of the universe to Buddhists as well as Hindus; the divine word to the Muslims and the kingdom of God to the Christians. Pearl. has been regarded the most precious jewel of all since time immemorial.

The only 'Gem' that could be worn in its natural form, that does not necessitate the need of cutting, reshaping or designing pearls have been the dream of the jeweller and wearer alike throughout the years. Vying only with diamonds discovered by 19th century explorers, the pearl reigns as 'Queen' of all gems to date.

How did the pearl fall into the hands of humans? By an act of God? No one knows exactly. Anthropologists and historians give credit of the discovery to those coastal civilisations in the Indian peninsula and to the riverine civilisations of China and the Americas. Whatever the origins are, the high regard for pearls could be noted in the fact that almost all civilisations valuing it as a symbol of wealth, prosperity and royalty. No wonder it was the most cherished and coveted gem of all, for in ancient times it was just one out of about 15,000 oysters collected, that had the possibility of bearing a natural pearl.

The natural pearl is formed as a protective reaction of the oyster, stimulated by a foreign object such as a grain of sand or even a small parasite intruding its sensitive inner tissue. To diffuse the intruder, the oyster encapsulates it in layers of nacre or the mother of pearl secretion, and the pearl grows in size as the number of layers increases. Pearls are formed in shelled mollusc such as oysters, mussels, clams, conch and abalone living in freshwater as well as in the seas.

However, pearls harvested from oysters in the seas are valued higher than those of their freshwater counterparts. Of the modern day pearls, it is the South Seas Pearls found in Australian and French Polynesian seas, which holds the highest value.

The quest for pearls or pearl diving, was one of the most dangerous of the occupations of yesteryear. However, the 20th century turned a positive page in the history of pearls, with the introduction of 'cultured' pearls or pearl cultivation. It was in the 1600s that a European scientist, observed that a pearl is made whenever an oyster did not have sufficient strength to expel foreign matter stuck inside it. The progress of pearl science was slow, until T. Mikimoto, a Japanese dealer in seaweed and marine products, obtained his patent in 1908 on the method of inducing an oyster to produce a pearl. With his motto of adorning "every woman in the world with a pearl necklace" he was instrumental in making pearls affordable and within reach of the masses.

No annal of the pearl is complete without a mention of the 'pearl' of the Indian ocean. Sri Lanka's affinity to pearls not only resides in its shape and the title. It was an invaluable source for pearls in the old days and its fame for pearls spread throughout the old world.

The history of Sri Lankan pearl industry stretches to the period of King Vijaya. The Mahawamsa notes him, sending his father-in-law, the Pandu King of India, "a shell pearl worth twice a hundred thousand (pieces of money)" at that time. Thereafter, it records King Devanampiyatissa, sending priceless treasures to King Asoka of India, including "eight kinds of pearls." And it was not only with India that Sri Lanka of ancient times traded in pearls.

Megasthenes a Greek writer of the 4th century BC, notes that "the island of Taprobane was more productive of gold and large pearls than the Indias."

The colonial masters who ruled our country for 300 years exploited and made good use of the pearl resources in Sri Lanka. In fact, the profits from pearl fishery and the need of transporting the pearl harvest made the English open up a road from Anuradhapura to Arippu as early as 1833. And it was in the late 1800s that Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon made a special link with the western coasts of Australia, due to pearls.

Thomas Bastian Ellies a Sri Lankan from Galle who migrated to Australia was a well known name in the history of the Western Australian pearling ports. Hailing from a family of jewellers, his experience and expertise was sought after by many a pearl trader of the times. The first Asian to own a fleet of pearl luggers, he became famous for his skill in pearl cleaning or skinning the pearls of blemishes and bringing out their true beauty.

The 'Southern Cross' a cluster of pearls in the shape of a cross which adorns the treasuries of Vatican, was one such cluster he had paid attention to. His pearling business in Broome, Australia is now managed by his granddaughter and great grandson.

Unity of the pearl

The Islamic caliphs used to wear the most exquisite crowns bejewelled with natural pearls

Pearls are universal and by nature tend to bring people of all nations together. It is a single entity that personifies beauty, unity, peace and oneness. It has an important place in all the religions of the world. Ancient mythology treats pearl as a union of fire and water, the result of lightening penetrating the oyster. It represents fertility, birth and rebirth and symbolises innocence, purity, perfection, humility and retiring nature.

In Buddhist literature it is shown as one of the eight treasures, the heart of the Buddha and pure intentions. The 'Flaming Pearl' is recognised both by Buddhists and Hindus as the crystallisation of light, transcendent wisdom, spiritual consciousness and spiritual essence of the universe.

It is known as the third eye of the Buddha as well as of Shiva. The Christian literature draws a simile between the kingdom of God and a priceless pearl. 

Hindu lasses wearing strings of pearls during the traditional rain dance as depicted in the painting.

One which man would go through immeasurable hardship to be in possession of, it also depicts salvation, liberation, purity and spiritual grace. Islamic belief portrays the pearl as the divine word and heaven. our forefathers of yesteryear believed a true pearl with many a virtue cannot be tarnished by evil forces.

It is time that the citizens in the 'isle of pearl' take a lesson from which it is named after.

@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka