|The Pearls of America
Pearls have been hunted and fought over for as far back as history and fable can record. With immaculate beauty and mesmerizing qualities the Aztecs and Mayans believed they held magical powers, whilst in ancient Rome only rulers were deemed important enough to wear them.
Pearls come in a fascinating range of shapes and sizes, whilst it is round pearls that command the highest prices in auction, wild pearls are rarely round, and many carry a soft colorization, from delicate pinks to more exotic black and brown shadings; the color itself depending on the type of water and kind of mollusc it is housed in.
Pearls are as delicate as their elusive splendor suggests. The pure organic nacre makes pearls vulnerable to extreme temperatures and acids, as well as being sensitive to both aridity and humidity. And pearls are not as firm as one may think, ranging between only 2.5 and 4.5 on the Mohs scale of hardness. With this in mind, it's important that those fortunate enough to own them always wear and carry pearls with great consideration and store them with care.
The harvesting of natural pearls has been taking place for thousands of years, along the shores of the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean, and floor of the Persian Gulf. The culturing of Pearls is also thought to go back as far as 13th Century China, where they would place Buddhist figures and symbols in molluscs in order to create blister pearls.
Today, saltwater pearls come predominantly from China and Japan, whereas freshwater pearls can be found throughout Europe in the rivers of France, Germany, Austria, Ireland and Scotland, and most interestingly, in the USA, along the Mississippi river.
The Native Americans
The Native Americans were the first to discover the freshwater pearls of the Mississippi, found in the Unionidae Mussels, as well as the American Mother-of-Pearl, found along the South Atlantic coast. The Native Americans took pride in their harvesting of pearls, and the pearl became a symbol of tremendous beauty within their culture, not only used as a form of decoration, jewelry and ornament, having a strong influence in their fashion and custom, but also as a reliable form of tender and trade.
Once the colonial settlers in America discovered the overwhelming quantity of pearls in the southern rivers of the country they quickly became one of the most exported products back to Europe, and eventually saw America become one of the chief sources of freshwater pearls across the globe.
Sadly, the rapid over-harvesting of America's pearl resources, and more recently, the invasion of the Zebra Mussel, has left the national rivers almost free of its stunning organic pearls, now making them a very rare piece of natural treasure, if not non-existent.
John Latendresse and the Great Pearl Farms of Tennessee
Considered to be the father of U.S. pearl culturing, John Latendresse was a pioneer in the American pearl cultivating industry, opening America's first pearl farm in Tennessee, in 1963. Latendresse was a man of extreme hard work, dedication and determination, spending almost 30 years of his life experimenting in pearl cultivation, investing more time, effort and money into the field than anyone before or since.
By the late 1970's, once his technology and cultivating system was established and working, Latendresse opened a further 4 freshwater pearl farms, with his protégée, James Peach, opening up a 5th, creating the backbone of the United States pearl cultivation industry and forming the American Pearl Company in Camden, Tennessee. Such was the success of local pearl cultivation that the pearl became the "state gem" of Tennessee.
There are many sub species of pearl mussels found in Tennessee's Pearl farms, each with very charming and descriptive names, including the elephant ear, pistol grip, maple leaf, butterfly, pimple back, three-ridge pigtoe, and the washboard mussels. The pearl cultivation is not a simple or fast process, far from it. The pearl mussels are first fished from the Tennessee River bed and then transported to the pearl farms. Once at the farms it is a delicate and patient process, as the mussels are nucleated and then left for up to 5 years, with their health and conditions carefully and constantly monitored.
No longer do pearl divers need to stalk along the often fruitless, and sometimes dangerous, ocean floors, desperately hunting the natural pearl. Once only seen in the possession of royalty, emperors, and those of immense wealth, the discovery of pearl culturing, and moreover the obsessive dedication of men like John Latendresse, has reshaped the journey of the pearl, making this once priceless, almost mythical gem, more accessible to the world, creating a community of pearl lovers worldwide.