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Nicholas Paspaley was the teenage son of a WWI Greek refugee when he began collecting pearls off the coast of Australia in the 1930s. A muscular, dark-haired young man was working on a wooden bead hauler, a small sailboat, using rudimentary diving equipment to hunt rare natural pearls and oyster shells instead of mother-of-pearl. Natural pearls were so precious that “it was not uncommon for a captain to be killed” by one and thrown overboard by the greedy crew, says Paspaley’s granddaughter Christine Salter.
During a voyage in 1932, Paspaley found a beautiful shiny natural pearl, hid it and, under the pretext of a great storm, sent the boat back to shore. He saved his life: soon a cyclone hit, wiping out hundreds of other ships. He sold the pearl and bought his lugger, and 80 years later the family business, which bears his surname, is the largest pearl producer in the South Australian seas, with the largest pearl fleet in the world and shops across the country.
Paspaley’s business lasted, not without problems, but the popularity of pearls did not. Available in cheap and plentiful, cultured or even plastic form, they have become deeply antiquated, considered fuddy-duddy and only suitable for the over 60s. Over the past decade, however, they have had an unexpected resurgence: from the great cultured pearls of the South Seas found off Australia’s most remote coast at historic examples of natural pearls, such as La Peregrina, once owned by the queen. Mary I and Elizabeth Taylor and sold by Christie’s for $ 11.8 million in 2011. Nature, science and industry are doing their part and, after a century of boredom, the pearl regains its luster.
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Pearls have the longest demonstrable history of all jewelry. Mother of pearl was used 100,000 years ago, says jewelry historian Beatriz Chadour-Sampson, co-curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s pearl exhibit. Roman women were particularly interested in natural pearls, which were symbols of beauty, purity and fertility. The gem’s appeal has increased because men have risked their lives to pick them by hand, and still do. According to Ms. Chadour-Sampson, Elizabeth I of her wore pearls in abundance, as a symbol of her chastity and the wealth of her kingdom. A portrait in the gallery of Tate Britain attests to this: a long rope hangs from her waist almost to the ground.
“They have been the most precious and prized gem for thousands of years,” says David Warren, senior director of international jewelry at Christie’s auction house. Carefully read The Pearl Book, published in 1908, which records the ancient belief that pearls were formed from drops of dew that fell on clams.
In New York, just before Nicholas Paspaley began his underwater adventures in Australia, the pearl reached what, in retrospect, appears to be its highest point. In 1917, Morton Freeman Plant made a deal with jeweler Pierre Cartier: Plant would give Cartier his Fifth Avenue mansion in exchange for $ 100 and a necklace of 128 natural pearls, therefore worth $ 1 million. The house is now Cartier’s flagship store.