Treasures of the Deep the Pearls at the Top; CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE WITH SOME PEARLS OF WISDOM

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Byline: CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE

The Business Manager (Mrs P) wants a pair of pearl earrings. We spent some time looking while we were on our hols but nothing we saw was quite right. She wants a pair of smoky grey coloured pearls. I've told her not to hold her breath. Fortunately, she doesn't have the profligacy of Cleopatra, the last Queen of Egypt.

According to historian Pliny the Elder, Cleopatra owned two of the largest pearl earrings in history, each of which was said to be worth 30 million sestertii. In her tempestuous relationship with Mark Antony, she challenged him to show who could provide the most sumptuous banquet, claiming that anything he could do, she could do better, lavishing even more expense on the event. When it came to her turn, in the midst of the revelry she took one of her earrings and tossed it casually into a gold goblet of wine, whereupon it dissolved, which she then drank. Having won the wager and following her capture, the second pearl was cut in two, so that each half could be placed in the ears of the statue of Venus in the Parthenon.

Also in Roman, the general Vitellius paid the expenses of an entire military campaign with the funds from selling one pearl from his mother's collection, while Caesar was said to have invaded Britain for the freshwater pearls to be found here.

Our own monarchy has always been fond of pearls - there are almost 300 in the Crown Jewels - and it is said that each pearl sewn into the clothes of Tudor and Elizabethan courtiers, both men and women, could buy a house.

That's probably not the case today, but in 1916, Louis Cartier traded a two-row pearl necklace with Mrs Maisie Plain in exchange for her substantial Fifth Avenue home in Manhattan. Necklace and property were each valued at $1.2m. The building remains the great Cartier headquarters to this day.

As every schoolboy and girl knows, pearls are produced by oysters when a foreign body such as a grain of sand or a piece of broken shell enters its shell.

In an attempt to reduce the irritation this causes the creature, it secretes a chemical fluid, which coats the object and the seed of a pearl is sewn.

There are various types of pearl. If one forms as a growth attached to the inside of the shell, it must be separated from it when it is harvested.

Its shape is, therefore, not spherical and is known as a blister pearl.

If the pearl does not become cemented to the shell, the creature forms a bag or pouch-like sac around it, allowing the pearl to grow like a cyst.

With luck, the pearl continues to grow in a uniform and spherical shape, so loved by today''s collectors. However, if the cyst grows in an awkward spot inside the creature, bizarre shapes are the result, which are called baroque pearls.

Pearl-producing oysters were found on sandbanks near the coast of such countries as the Persian Gulf, Sri Lanka, the north west coast of Australia, the Philipine Islands, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Islands and Japan.

They had a lifespan of about 11 to 13 years and were harvested by divers, but only every 30th or 40th oyster actually contained a pearl. Thus it can take many hundreds of thousands of tons of oysters to make a fine necklace that is perfectly matched and graduated. As a result of pollution, pearl diving effectively ceased around the middle of the 20th century and consequently, supply is now limited to what was collected before World War II.

The demand for pearls was once so great, however, that between 1910-1920, experimental work carried out by notably the Japanese succeeded in producing them artificially.

This involves placing a small mother-of-pearl bead inside a mature oyster through an incision in its shell. …