Organic gems are either plant based or animal based. Pearls, corals, amber and ivory.
Found in shellfish, especially oysters and mussels, these are formed when an irritant such as a piece of grit enters the shell and layers are secreted around it, these are known as nacre gradually building up to form a pearl. The light that reflects from these layers are known as the ‘orient of the pearl’. Natural pearls are rarer as they have to be dived for to find the oyster with the pearl in it, whilst farmed oysters have simulate irritant planted inside the shell to create a cultured pearl.
Pearls vary in colour from white, to pink to black. The Egyptians treasured pearls so much so they asked to have some buried with them, and it was said that Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in a glass of wine just to win a wager with Mark Anthony so she could consume the wealth of one nation in one meal. The Romans saw pearls as the ultimate symbol of wealth and status. In the Dark Ages women wore pearl necklaces and gave some to gallant knights to protect them in battle. In fact in some parts of Europe only the nobility were allowed to wear pearls.
American waters were one of the original sources for pearls, but overfishing depleted reserves and these days it is the orient that provides most pearls for jewellery use. In 1916, Cartier traded two pearl necklaces in New Yorks Fifth Avenue for a valuable property.
Akoya pearl cultivation was the work of one famous man, Kokichi Mikimoto. In the late 1800s he began to experiment with pearl cultivation. He was not very successful at this but in 1905 after years of painstaking work he produced a totally round pearl. This was a breakthrough as the natural pearl so much just for the upper classes could now become available to the masses at a much lower price. Today the Mikimoto company are famed for the production of the highest quality Akoya pearl and the sea around Japan allow the oysters to produce a cultured pearl as beautiful as the natural one.
Amber is the orange red substance that is the resin from pine trees which date back almost 40million years. The Baltic is one of the commonest places to find amber in what is known as the blue earth region between Chlapowo and the Sambian Peninsula. In nature amber is found in natural defined drip forms similar to stalactites or as fillings in the crevices of the once richly resinous trees. Many pieces just weight a few grmas, but some have been found up to over 9 kilos. The most fascinating pieces are those found with mummified insects, perhaps a mosquito or a fly. These are usually more expensive so one should be wary of imitations where insects are added between two pieces to make it look like an amber insectivore.
Jet is a form of lignite a precursor to coal. It is derived from fossilised wood and the name derives from the phrase ‘jet black’. It is most commonly found in Whitby, Yorkshire, and can be up to 182 million years old! It has been used since the Neolithic period, and continued to be used in the Bronze Age where it was used for necklaces. The Romans used it in rings, hair pins, bracelets and pendants, and it seems that much of this was worked in York during the Roman occupation. The Romans believed it had protective qualities and deflect the gaze of the ‘evil eye’.
However it was in the Victorian era that Jet really found fashion. Queen Victoria wore Jet as part of her mourning dress after the death of her husband Prince Albert. This started a major obsession with the material for those who had lost loved ones would wear a brooch or a necklace often with a glazed rear portion for a lock of hair to be inserted. There are Jet substitutes, so to be sure you are not buying black glass, which is cold to the touch, Jet is warm due to its lower thermal conductivity.
We have many more organic jewellery items in our online store at www.vintagetom.co.uk