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Prospecting For Pearls

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Pearls are brilliant, lustrous formations, consisting largely of carbonate of lime interstratifled with animal membrane, found in the shells of certain mollusks. They are believed to originate by the entrance into the shell of some out-side particle, such as a grain of sand, an egg of the mollusk itself, or perhaps some parasite which irritates the mantle or outer covering of the animal until it produces a secretion which in tint ? forms the pearl. Again, it is also said that an excess of carbonate of lime in the water may cause a pearl to develop.

However, accepting the theory that a grain of sand is the more common cause, it is easy to understand how this foreign particle, of which the animal is unable to rid itself, becomes covered with a pearly substance, constantly growing thicker and larger all the time and taking on a variety of shapes and forms. It may be round, oval, flattened, mallet-shaped or very irregular. Again it may be that the mollusk in its efforts to get rid of this irritation caused by the offending particle revolves it constantly, thus making the different shapes and forms.

Whatever the cause or however formed they may be found in almost any of the mollusks, al-though they are confined mostly . to certain groups, of which the Union or fresh water clam is the most common and is found in the fresh water lakes and rivers and streams of the United States; the color and lustre of the pearl corresponding with the inner part of the shell nearest which it lies. The West Indian pinch conch shell produces beautiful rose-colored pearls, while those of the common oysters and clam are a dead white or dark purple, as to how near they are to that part of the mantle which secretes the white or the dark material for the shell.

The mantle is the thin delicate membrane which covers the soft internal part of the animal, and it is from the surface of this, especially the outer edges, that the material is produced which forms the inner layers of the shell.

Whatever may be the method of formation, pearls can only be formed at the expense of the shell, as everything necessary to their production is drawn from the same supply as that for the shell. Therefore, their presence can usually be discovered by the appearance of the outside of the shell.

Natural, perfect looking shells very seldom contain pearls, while the humped, ill-shaped, rough ones often contain beautiful pearls. In gathering shells only the fullgrown, old, distorted ones should be taken, as these are the ones wherein the pearls will be found, and by collecting only this kind the pearl fisheries will be pre-served. This fact should be remembered, as the Government has had to step in and prohibit the taking of clams for pearls for a period of two years or more in many places. Then, too, the pearl bearing mollusks are becoming quite rare in the Eastern states on account of the contamination of the water by the mills and manufactories, as animal life cannot long exist in impure waters, but gradually dies or seeks pure water.

The shells should always be opened as soon as they are taken from the water, because if allowed to open by decaying the pearls become discolored. They should never be opened by boiling as the heat ruins the lustre and brilliancy of the pearl.

Many pearl hunters may open thousands of shells without finding anything of much value, and perhaps a whole season may be spent with no better results, only finding a few small ones or slugs which bring small reward for the time spent. While, perhaps, a farmer boy may hap-pen along within the hour, kick out a single shell, open it and out drops a pearl of great value. So it is with this expectancy of finding something valuable in the next one that keeps them eternally at it. But not one in a hundred may be of good shape and quality, as the worth of a pearl depends upon its color, lustre and form.

Many large and valuable pearls have been found in different sections. Among the most noted was one found in 1857 near Paterson, N. J., weighing 93 grains which was known as the "Queen Pearl." It was sold to the Empress Eugenie of France for $2,500, and this same pearl is now worth $10,000.

As late as this last summer pearls have been found in the Mississippi Valley, one weighing 165 grains, valued at from $5,000 to $6,000 and which would have been worth several times this amount had it been a perfect gem. Another beautiful, round, clear pearl sold. for $2,250. Others at $500, $700, $900 and $1,000. And numbers have been taken from the rivers and streams of Iowa which have sold for $50, $100 and $200, while great quantities of smaller ones ranging in price from $2.00 to $25.00 have been gathered and sold. A pearl of 12 grains which is perfect in beauty, color and shape may be worth $200, but with very slight defects its value may be reduced to one-tenth that sum.

These pearl formations are not always symmetrical, in fact . the number of perfect ones found is rare compared with the great number found. Some are perfectly round and smooth, some are flattened on one side and are called "button pearls", others are flattened on one side with a somewhat irregular surface and are called "baroques" and "biscuits" and the slugs, the most common form of all. Among these there are many odd, almost grotesque shapes, some seeming to resemble human and animal heads, wings, feather-like forms, horns and a rounded variety with raised, pitted markings are numerous. But whatever the form may be, they have very little value unless they are lustrous and beautifully pearly.

In colors they present a series of shades from the dead, opaque white, which are the least valued pearls, through the many tints of pink, salmon, yellow, the different shades of purples on to a bright red, which resembles a drop of molten copper; there are also light and dark green, light and dark blue, rose color and in fact all the col-ors of the rainbow, all more or less beautifully transparent and iridescent. But in color as well as form they must be brilliant, lustrous and pearly, with a perfectly smooth skin, free from pimples, knots, pits and protuberances, as these several defects all lessen the value.

The pearl is the only precious gem found where no labor, work or skilled artisan is employed to perfect its natural beauty which it has when it comes direct from the clam. However, there may be a dull opaque and apparently worthless one found, when, by peeling away the outer layer a very beautiful pearl may be produced. Again its imperfections may extend all through and the work of peeling makes no improvement.

Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa are the leading pearl producing states and many valuable pearls are taken from their lakes, rivers and streams of the finest grades and highest values, while the White and Black river sections of Arkansas produce many beautiful ones. In fact, in every state in the Union they are found in more or less abundance. In an early day the Miami Valley of Ohio was a great pearl producing section, until the clams became almost exterminated by the ceaseless hunt and destruction of the clam beds. A score or more of American heiresses are today wearing "ropes of pearls" representing values of a hundred thousand dollars and up, while all the nobility of Europe prize them as the highest valued jewels worn by them and fortunes are represented around the necks of many a Countess or Princess. All taken from some little clam and by some man's hard toil in the waters searching for these gems.

Many of the poorer pearls find a market in Germany, the finest and most valuable in the United States and France principally.

The most noted marine pearl fishery on the American continent is lower California, the pearl oysters preferring sheltered bays or harbors where fresh water empties in, and in these places some of the finest pearls have been found. At these fisheries the season lasts from June to December, and great quantities are taken by divers who go out in small boats diving for the shells, bringing up a basketful and often a single shell has been opened containing one hundred pearls, but so very small that they were- of little or no value.

The true pearl oyster of the Pacific and Indian ocean is one of the most common pearl bearers, and has always produced the bulk of commercial pearls, while the Iarge thick shell produces the mother-of-pearl used for numerous ornamental purposes.

The history of the American pearl dates from the day Columbus landed in the New World, when he found the Indian women with many strings of them around their necks and history tells us that he took great quantities back with him, secured by exchanging some gaudy, highly painted plate or similar trifling article.

Again, the great shell mounds found in Florida which Mr. Clarence A. Vandiveer of Miamisburg, O., mentions in his article entitled, "On Indian River" in last month's El-T-T, were not pearl producing shells and for what purpose such great quantities were gathered remains yet unexplained, unless it was that the meat was used as an article of food, as researches have been made in these mounds by prominent lapidaries, but no trace of pearl bearing shells have been found.

Balboa and De Soto found them in the hands of the natives in large quantities and Sir Walter Raleigh collected from the natives in Virginia several thousand, choosing only the best among them. But all of these found among the natives at that early time which were strung were mostly spoiled in brilliancy and lustre, as their crude way of burning a hole through them with a hot copper wire ruined their pearly color, while others cooked. baked and steamed by them lost their beauty and splendor as well.

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