The subtle wisdom of pearls Fashion: It's the year of unusual strands, with exhibits nearing of rare, natural conch and other status specimens from the South Pacific.

July 18, 1996|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,SUN FASHION EDITOR

Pearls express subtle elegance. What then of the woman who wants to make a major pearl statement?

It's the year of unusual pearls, and purveyors of pearls to the carriage trade are pushing new specimens. Mikimoto, the pearl dynasty, opens an exhibit of rare natural conch pearl jewelry in New York next week. Tiffany & Co. is promoting a South Sea pearl collection.

Until fashion comes up with a faux version, only the real thing will do.

Conch pearls are found only in the natural state in the Caribbean Queen conch, and the odds of finding four of gemstone quality occur in every 50,000 shells. They are becoming even rarer with overfishing to supply conch steaks and stews, which are an island delicacy.

Their shape is usually oval, and their color resembles coral except for an internal structure that endows the bead with a silky sheen.

The Edwardians cherished them, and one of the world's most magnificent pieces using a 23.5 carat conch pearl is housed in the Walters Art Gallery.

The South Sea or Tahitian pearl is another status strand. Tiffany & Co. introduced a collection this spring that makes your prim pearls pale.

Size and unusual color separate South Sea pearls from their smaller relatives. They can be grown up to four times larger than the more traditional strands. Although they are cultured, it takes about two years to form a South Sea pearl with no way of controlling the color.

The surprise is in the tint of these large treasures, and they are found in buttery golds, pinks, black or rare pale green. It may then take another two years to assemble and match a necklace.

All in good time.

Women have coveted pearls ever since Eve's cousin found the first one in her search for a different gourmet treat. No need to puzzle about the first brave man to try a raw oyster. He was egged on by his mate, who convinced him that prodigious oyster consumption would endow him with prodigious powers. The pearl necklace was a bonus.

For centuries, pearls could only be harvested by divers who risked life for the rare sea finds. All that changed in 1893, when Kokichi Mikimoto demonstrated the world's first successful cultivation of pearls in Japan.

After a century of development, a cultured pearl necklace is now a reality in the jewelry wardrobes of many women.

Discreet is forever in good taste.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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