Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Pearls. They were cherished by ancient civilizations, thought fit only for nobility. One story tells how Cleopatra wagered she could eat a nation's wealth in one meal, and drank a crushed pearl in a glass of wine as proof. Today, cultured pearls are affordable enough to wear not only with elegant fashions, but as chic everyday accessories as well. Some people picture pearls as white or pearl-colored gems, but oysters make pearls in many colors, including black. Black pearls are costlier than others; they are highly prized, with a depth and luster you won't find in other pearls.
Early Tahitian legend tells of Oro, a god who used rainbows to visit Earth. Because black pearls are iridescent and luminous, the legend says that they carry all the colors of Oro's rainbows. In the 1700s, European explorers discovered the black pearls of Tahiti and took them back to Europe, where demand for them exploded. Black pearls became a fad among the European wealthy. The demand was so great that pearl oysters near the Pacific islands of Gambier and Tuamotu almost became extinct. The French passed laws to protect the black pearl trade in the late 1800s, and oyster farmers were able to save the oysters as well as the black pearl industry. Today's gem dealers refer to black pearls as Tahitian pearls, though black pearl oysters are raised near other islands in the French Polynesian atolls, and not the large island of Tahiti.
Early European explorers who reached North America found Native Americans decked with many types of pearls. Freshwater and coastal white pearls were most common, but sailors were intrigued by the unusual black pearls from the warm coastal waters of what is now Mexico's Bay of California.
What Makes Them Black
Every pearl is as individual as the oyster that created it and the woman who wears it. Not just any oyster can make a black pearl. The color of a pearl is determined by the species of oyster. Pinctada margaritifera, commonly called the black-lipped oyster, makes black pearls. Oyster farmers raise them from tiny young in oyster beds in the warm lagoons of French Polynesia. Individual black-lipped oysters make pearls of similar colors that are dark, but not truly black. Jewelers may sort through hundreds of pearls to find enough to make a color-matched set.
Tahitian black pearls are actually shades of gray, from light to very dark. Black pearls have a metallic sheen, and are noted for the rainbow of iridescent color that plays off the surface. Some black pearls have a single prominent color sheen that defines them. The underlying pearl is dark, while the iridescent surface luster might be magenta, green or eggplant. Peacock blue and cobalt are the rarest and most expensive colors.
A Natural Process
Black pearls are not processed and have no dyes added. They are carefully removed from the oysters and cleaned. That's it. They may be lightly polished as part of the cleaning, but the shine, iridescence and color are natural.