Parade Of Pearls

Singer Mariah Carey arrives at VH1 Save the Music Foundation 10th Anniversary gala in New York, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2007. (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)
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Looking for that romantic something to give your Valentine? How about some nice pearls?

Well, maybe not “La Peregrina“ ("The Incomparable”), a giant pearl found off the coast of Panama around 1510.

"Then it was brought by Balboa from Panama to Spain, given to Phillippe II, who then presented it to Mary Tudor. Then, upon her death, the pearl reverted to Spain and went through a succession of royal hands, finally winding up with the Duke of Ambercrombie in England. And that’s when Richard Burton bought it for Elizabeth Taylor as a Valentine’s Day gift."

La Peregrina is just one of the famous pearls that paleontologist Neil Landman has put on exhibition at New York’s American Museum of Natural History:

Says Landman, "This is the most comprehensive exhibition ever produced on pearls, and, I think I can say, that probably ever will be."

There are pearls worn by all sorts of girls, from Marilyn Monroe to Mary Queen of Scots. Pearls set with diamonds, sapphires, and emeralds. Pearls set into crowns, turned into flowers, sewn into wedding gowns. Pearls have often been seen as a symbol of purity, given to celebrate marriage or birth. But forget those myths about “true” pearls being white. There are pink pearls, yellow, gray, black, and more.

And, by the way, another pearl myth is that that you might find a great one in your oyster. In fact, most gem-quality pearls come from other mollusks, those hard-shelled, squishy-bodied creatures living in salt or fresh water. Landman has studied them for 30 years, earning him the title of “Mollusk Man."

We decided to try to stump Mollusk Man. Correspondent Braver challenged him to identify the origin of the pearls she was wearing during the interview.

"Those are terrific," says Landman. "They're from China. They're freshwater pearls. They're known as 'potato pearls' because they're shaped like potatoes. But they're beautiful pearls."

Well, he is right. The pearls are from China. But let's explode another myth, that all fine pearls these days come from Asia. The exhibition at the Museum of Natural History includes a collection of pearls cultured in the waters of the Tennessee River, at the American Pearl Farm on Bird Song Creek in Camden, Tenn.

Manager Don Nerren sets out thousands of mollusk-filled nets each year and waits for nature to take its course. Says he, "I mean, I got another net here, if you want to see if we got anything in it. I mean, I don't know. Only God knows. You do your best and hope…hope to get something. If every shell had a pearl in it, then we’d be surrounded by pearls."

The operation was started by Gina Latendresse’s father, John, back in the 1970s. They have five to seven acres of pearl farm, with 100,000 to 500,000 mussels.

So Gina's dad just said, "We can make pearls in Tennessee"?

"Yes, he did," says Gina. "But, in fact, they had to go around the country to about 300 bodieof water to test for ph levels, the water quality, all sorts of things. And it just so happened – 5 to 10 miles from his house. So here we are."

As Gina’s mother (co-founder of the business) demonstrates, the Latendresses create their pearls by implanting bits of organic material (called "nuclei”) into the mollusk’s shell.

In ancient times, of course, it always happened naturally. Some small living organism (no, not a grain of sand) found its way inside the mollusk, and the mollusk reacted by forming a protective coating around the organism, creating a pearl.

Implanting (or "culturing") pearls was first recorded in 5th-century China, but perfected by the Japanese at the beginning of the 20th century.

But how do you know if your Valentine has given you the real thing? Paleontologist Landman says there’s one easy way to tell a true pearl: "You rub it across your front teeth, very gently, and this will feel sort of gritty, whereas the imitation pearls will feel completely smooth."

But never fear! You may not be able to afford a crown from Nepal or a bracelet from Byzantium. But cultured pearls, like those from Tennessee, go for as little as $10 apiece.

Explains Landman, "What we see as we come into the 19th and 20th century, what I like to call the democratization of pearls. So pearls that previously had only been used by queens and kings and now, really, thanks to pull culturing in the 20th century, they’re affordable to everyone. They come in a great range of sizes, shapes and prices, and there’s something for everyone about pearls."

So put 'em on, and go out, and party.

Yes, and remember that they're put out by that wonderful little animal, the mollusk.

Isn’t it romantic?

For more about the exhibition at the Museum of Natural History, go to its Web site.

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