How Pearls Lost Their Status Symbol Sheen
In Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy new film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, pearls play at least as big a role as Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. In one of the movie’s flashbacks, we see the swinish Tom give Daisy a three-strand pearl necklace worth $350,000–over $4.6 million in today’s dollars. Later, Daisy tears the pearls from her neck as she tries to break off the engagement, scattering hundreds of silver-white beads across the floor. The symbolism is clear: pearls represent the immense, old money wealth that both protects and limits Daisy.
These days, pearls remain a popular choice for well-heeled businesswomen and ladies who lunch. But they’re not the status symbol they used to be. A three-strand pearl necklace from Tiffany & Co.’s new Gatsby collection costs just $1,000. Given the company’s reputation, it’s a safe bet that these are high-quality gems. Yet while in the early 20th century, a fine pearl necklace could be swapped for a Manhattan mansion, today a version from one of the world’s most reputable luxury retailers can be had for the price of a month’s rent–in Brooklyn, with roommates.
So how did pearls go from patrician to (somewhat more) populist? Like so many modern-day economic puzzles, the answer comes down to two things: technological innovation and the global marketplace.
For most of human history, pearls were the ultimate luxury item. The Roman general Vitellius is said to have bankrolled his military campaign with his mother’s pearl earring. (Hopefully he asked her permission first.) Cleopatra created the most expensive meal of all time by taking a swig of wine with a dissolved pearl inside, much to Marc Antony’s surprise. From Asia to Europe to the Middle East, pearls were a sign of opulence and power.
Pearls’ value was linked to their scarcity. Oysters were found in only a few regions–the Persian Gulf, freshwater rivers and ponds in China, and coastal Japan. And pearls were extremely rare. Just one in 10,000 oysters produce a natural pearl. Even fewer create the kind of round, lustrous gemstones that prompt people to decorate themselves like Christmas trees. The fact that pearl diving was a dangerous venture only added to the jewel’s allure. (Like the diamond industry, pearls have a dark side. Slaves were forced to dive for them in the 16th-century Caribbean and South America, and throughout the world, pearl divers remained poor while traders reaped the profits.)
Even as European colonialism opened up new pearl sources and markets, the jewels lost none of their luster. In fact, as supply increased, so did demand. According to British archaelogist Robert Carter, between 1790 and 1905, the value of pearls grew sixfold.
But at the turn of the 20th century, a trio of Japanese men–government biologist Tokichi Nishikawa, carpenter Tatsuhei Mise, and Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodlemaker–each arrived independently at an invention that would permanently alter the pearl industry. They had figured out a way to produce shiny, moon-like orbs, on command and en masse. Their innovation would come to be known as cultured pearls.
Oysters naturally produce pearls when foreign objects like parasites get stuck inside their shells. To protect their soft inner bodies from harm, they secrete a smooth, hard substance called nacre that coats the irritant, forming a pearl.
Nishikawa, Mise, and Mikimoto realized that they didn’t have to wait for a providential parasite to drift along. Using a grafting needle to lodge an irritant inside oyster shells created freshwater pearls identical to the natural kind in size and quality. And they were much, much cheaper to produce.
By the 1920s, Japanese cultured pearls were ready to debut on the commercial market. But they took a while to catch on. Hesitant to believe that far more affordable gems could be the real deal, the elite stuck with natural pearls. (Hence Daisy’s $350,000 bling.) But when the Great Depression rocked the U.S. and Europe, the market for natural pearls was effectively squashed. Cultured pearls gained a permanent, respectable foothold, and the value of pearls plummeted as supply went up. Pricier options continued to exist, of course, especially at the very high end. But by the 1950s, your average middle-class housewife could expect to have a strand to call her own.
More recently, the price of pearls has taken yet another hit. According to a 2011 article from the New York Times, an influx of farmed, gem-quality pearls from China have slashed wholesale prices for half-inch white pearls by 30 percent in the last several years. And automation is displacing the workers who normally sort and match pearls, making labor even cheaper. With all those factors in play, genuine pearls seem likely to stay within common reach–unlike Gatsby’s green light.