The Gem of Two Seas

August 2, 2016
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BY VICKY MCFARLANE

The allure of the precious pearl transcends both culture and time. Exalted in civilization’s earliest historical records and religious texts, the timeless pearl has been desired throughout the ages by royalty and aristocracy. Great historical figures have included pearls in portraits of themselves to portray power, purity and to solidify their exalted standing as nobility. Style leaders such as Coco Chanel, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Jacqui Kennedy, and most recently the late Princess Diana, were all avid pearl wearers. Caroline of Monaco, Michelle Obama, and Hollywood celebs Angelina Jolie, Beyonce, Christina Aguilera and Kristin Scott Thomas to name a few continue to keep the style alive. Whether dancing across the necks of first ladies, adorning models on the catwalks of Paris, or glowing on the svelte celebs on the red carpets of Hollywood, the allure of the pearl is timeless.

Today, saltwater pearls are rarely “real”, by which experts mean “natural” and the gemstone’s appeal and value are significantly enhanced by this rarity. The natural Bahraini pearls, which are collected by ‘breath-hold’ divers who plunge into the sea, are considered one of the rarest and best in the world. Royalty has long coveted the exquisite gems found in the Kingdom’s warm azure waters with Queen Elizabeth I being one of the most famous Bahraini pearl enthusiasts, having owned over 3,000 gowns decorated with pearls in addition to closets full of pearl adorned wigs and decorative objects. The Queen of Sheba and Catherine the Great are also said to have worn Bahraini pearls.

The attraction of the Bahraini pearl is in the fabulous luster and superior quality of the gems, thought to be the result of the combination of Bahrain’s freshwater springs, and warm, shallow and highly saline waters. The concoction of this rare alchemy creates tiny, not much larger than a grain of sugar, pearls which are considered amongst the best and rarest pearls in the world. Buyers such as Jacques Cartier would travel to Bahrain in order to buy from the ‘source’ rather than from the Indian merchants to whom the majority of Bahrain’s pearls were sold.

Today, the pollution of the world’s oyster beds has made natural pearls almost priceless. Their almost entirely depleted supply means that they are found very infrequently only in the seas off Bahrain and Australia. With the arrival of the cheaper cultured pearls, the Bahraini pearl industry has faced a decline. In an effort to preserve the ancient and precious heritage of deep sea pearl diving, cultured pearls are banned from the Bahraini market and only natural pearls are sold, with all pearls tested at Bahrain’s Gemstone & Pearl Testing Laboratory. Considering the historical importance of the pearling industry to Bahrain, the laboratory, in collaboration with the Gemological Institute of America, have created a world-class research centre for natural pearls in the Kingdom, where they are studying ways to boost Bahrain’s natural pearl production capacity and preserve the Kingdom’s precious pearling heritage.

The considerable dearth of natural pearls is reflected in the prices they bring at auction, with antique pearl necklaces and earrings selling for record-breaking sums. Elizabeth Taylor’s famous La Peregrina 16th century pearl, which sold for US$11.8 million, emphasizes this point.

The scarcity and high cost of the pearl only adds to its attraction. The Bahraini pearl was most recently showcased at the celebrity wedding of the year, when Amal Clooney, the London-based Lebanese-British lawyer, human rights activist and author married Hollywood superstar George Clooney. Amal wore stunning pearl earrings that were harvested in the waters of Bahrain and designed by Lebanese jeweler Chatila.  The natural Bahraini pearl earrings, which were offset with square cut diamonds, were a wedding present from her parents.

As Coco Chanel said: “Pearls are always appropriate.” Synonymous with old Hollywood glamour, the pearl is timeless, classic, and yet incredibly stylish and fashionable. And, with a variety of hues, shapes and sizes, pearls have taken up a contemporary fashion position, making a distinctive statement while still being classy and subdued. Mexican-Kenyan actress and film director Lupita Nyong’o underscored the super style power of the pearl when she stunned the world in a striking pearl-encrusted sleeveless gown at this year’s Oscars. Bahraini fashion label, Noon by Noor, are also bringing the pearl, and in particular the Bahraini pearl, to the front and center in the global fashion world. The brains behind the label, Bahraini cousins Sheikha Haya and Sheikha Noor, were inspired by the beautiful Bahraini pearl, and have made subtle references to the gem throughout their recently launched “Cruise 15” collection.

It is not surprising that the pearl remains a wardrobe staple for the fashion forward.  Pearls are often the go-to gem for understated elegance and definitive chic and can be styled to fit any look. Whether it be a demure princess-length strand, a single string to add polish to a business suit, or an opera-length necklace for a night at the theatre, the pearl has the ability to transition from daytime to a black tie affair or red carpet gala event with ease. From Audrey Hepburn and Princess Diana to new generation Hollywood star Jennifer Lawrence; the pearl never fails to leave its mark.

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