Mr. Oyster Talks About His Masterpiece
HELLO! I am an oyster. I live in the warm waters off Mie Prefecture in Japan. My family’s name is Akoya. We are in the pearl-making business. Years ago life was easygoing, but now, with so much pressure for production, our entire family is very busy making the popular Akoya pearls. We have relatives laboring around the world, from Thursday Island, North Australia, to the Red Sea and on to the Gulf of California.
When you enter a shop to admire or buy our elegant masterpieces, do you ever consider what we have been through to produce them? We have been shifted from home to home. We have undergone a major operation. We have been manhandled. We have toiled twenty-four hours a day all year around.
When I was very young, I lived in seawater that was about twenty-five degrees Centigrade (77 degrees Fahrenheit). From rafts, cedar branches were lowered into the water, and I clung to one of them. True, I was only a baby, but from then on I began to feel like a real oyster. After ten days, when I was almost half an inch long, I was taken off the branch, put into a fine-mesh net and suspended from a raft, along with many relatives. We continued growing and were constantly moved to larger nets. At year’s end, when I was almost two inches long, the oyster breeder sold me to a pearl culturist. I had no choice.
I Have an Operation
At first the grown-up world was enjoyable. We were well looked after and had all that we needed. Then came a shock. A number of us were crowded into bamboo baskets and dropped to the cold sea bottom. Did we ever get sick! But that was nothing compared with the way we felt when we were suddenly hauled up to the warm surface waters. We were terribly weak, and the severe shock caused males to eject their sperm and females their eggs.
I cannot speak for the others, but I surely felt in no condition for what was coming. However, the nucleus-insertion technician gave me a checkup. And, do you know what? He declared that I was in tip-top shape. He then opened me up and inserted a sphere cut from the shell of a pigtoe mussel, a foreigner from the Mississippi River in the United States. Besides this nucleus material, a piece of another healthy living oyster’s mantle (an organ lining the inside of our shells) was transplanted into me. This enveloped the nucleus and began to form nacre. The nacre gives that familiar pearly look. The inserted sphere was only a few millimeters in diameter—not very big by your standards. But to me it felt as a football would feel in your stomach!
The pearl culturist must have sensed how we were feeling because he treated us kindly after the operation. We were gently laid in metal baskets and slowly put into the water to hang from rafts. We rested quietly. Some of my relatives found the shock of the operation too great and ejected their nuclei. Upon developing certain symptoms, these oysters were taken away. I began to feel better and was ready to work. Making nacre was a protection against the foreign body put inside me; but I also enjoyed this work, knowing that you would find pleasure in my pearl.
During spring and summer, I was kept in water at a depth of about eight feet and I made a lot of yellow nacre. In autumn and winter, I was lowered to eighteen feet. Although less in quantity, the pinkish nacre I then made was of higher quality.
The Women of the Sea
Throughout my three working years, I have had daily attention. The baskets and ropes are checked constantly for damage caused by typhoons, strong tides and pests. Do you know who does this? The women of the sea, renowned pearl divers. Because we oysters now live in baskets, these women do not have to spend their time searching for us, as they once did. Their work now consists of hauling us up for a good old scrub-down four times a year. We like that! Off go the parasites that want to live on our shells, as well as the seaweed that clings to us.
Do you know why mainly women do this work? Now, ladies, please do not be offended. It seems that you are blessed with more fat than men. This means you can stand the cold seawaters for longer periods. Of course, this chilling work brings in a little extra pocket money, and the women of the sea do not mind that.
My grandfather told me that these women swim from youth until old age, doing best when in their thirties. Granddad used to worry about them, though, because they could not breathe underwater as we can. He felt three minutes was long enough for any human, but some pearl divers remained submerged longer than that. Poor old Granddad was always a worrier. Yet he never saw any women of the sea die from staying below the surface too long.
‘Pearls of Wisdom’
Now I will give you some tips on buying our masterpieces. You might call my remarks ‘pearls of wisdom.’ First of all, remember that pearls come in many colors, shapes and sizes. Some are plump and round; others, small and uneven. Unusually shaped pearls, called baroque, often are used for earrings and pendants. The blue baroque, although popular, actually is made by sick oysters. Did you know that?
In the past, older women often desired the elegant black and blue pearls, whereas younger ladies chose pink; white and silver pearls were favored by those of ages in between. Now the color most desired is pink, followed by white. In single items of jewelry, pearl rings rank first in sales, although by weight more pearls are sold as necklaces. Manufacturers are endeavoring to develop a wide variety of settings to show off pearls of all colors. Say, how about a striking green one? We make those too.
A high-quality pearl has a thick nacre layer, and that gives it luster that will last for hundreds of years. Our gems, having a deep pearly luster, often give the impression of glowing pink in the center. Women think these pearls are beautiful, but many men see them as a threat to their checkbooks. A word of caution: Do not buy pearls having faint brown or gray patches. These will become discolored in a few years. Also, the nacre of white pearls is often very thin and the initial luster soon fades.
Since weight governs the price of a pearl, you may want to purchase a smaller size. For instance, rather than a necklace of standard seven-millimeter pearls, what about buying one that has our six-and-three-quarter-millimeter gems? It is far less expensive, and few people will notice the difference.
Oh, did you know that the Bible contains an illustration reflecting the value of pearls? Yes, Jesus Christ likened the kingdom of heaven to a “pearl of high value.” (Matt. 13:45, 46) To us, of course, all our pearls are valuable. We spend much time and energy producing every one of them! Even so, we recognize that in human hands our products vary immensely in value and price. A top-quality pearl is a large, unbored, perfect sphere. Any slight flaw can be treated so as to become almost invisible. True black pearls are the most valuable.
Genuine or Imitation?
We are flattered that humans try so hard to imitate our pearls. Your man-made pearls once were nothing more than powdered scabbard fish scales applied to glass balls! Now you make beads of ground “bad” pearls and oyster shells mixed with plastic. We reluctantly admit that some of them are very good. At first glance, even your experts have trouble telling the difference. But, then, we oysters expect that. After all, they’re only human!
Do you know the difference between genuine and imitation pearls? If the pearl has been bored for threading, the imitation will have telltale marks. Because of mass production, there will be a slight protrusion on each side of the hole. That is where the beads have been cut from one another. Moreover, the pearls of a necklace or a brooch will not be identical in color if they are genuine high-quality pearls, but the imitations always match.
Now, please take another look at our genuine oyster-made brand. Two never have the same face. You may notice flaws in them. These very markings prove that they were made, not by machines, but by us—pearl masters of the deep. Naturally, an expensive pearl will have few flaws.
Suppose you still cannot tell the difference between imitation and genuine pearls. What can you do? Well, the Japanese test them with their teeth. The true pearl will catch on the front of your teeth because its surface is uneven. On the other hand, the imitation pearl will slip. If uncertainty persists, why not take the pearl to a jeweler? He will weigh it. Because of the nacre layer, the true pearl is heavier. But perhaps the most positive test consists of subjecting the pearl to an ultraviolet beam in a dark room. Only the imitation pearl will shine white. Even without expert help, you can consider luster. The genuine pearl will have a warmth about it that makes the imitator look cold.
Care of Pearls
May I ask you to look after our masterpieces. Acid damages them, and after a few hours, human perspiration begins to work on the pearl. So it is good to use a chamois or a soft cloth to wipe pearls after wearing them. Detergent, perfume and makeup harm pearls too, causing them to lose their luster. So please be careful.
Well, I have reached the age of six. That means I am getting old. Soon I will hand over to you my lifetime’s masterpiece. I do hope you will enjoy and treasure it.