An enthusiastic reporter reveals all about this precious but useless bauble.
An oyster makes a pearl by coating an irritant that enters its shell—despite the legend, rarely a grain of sand, usually a tiny parasite. This takes years and doesn’t happen often, so hundreds of oysters die to produce a single natural pearl. Bloom (Journalism/Univ. of Iowa; Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, 2000, etc.) points out that the first treasure returned to Spain by Columbus was not gold or even spices but pearls, which also produced the first rush of greedy European entrepreneurs who enslaved the Native Americans. Literally tons were harvested across the world during the next centuries, but pollution, overfishing and culturing have reduced natural pearls to a minor niche. Originating in Australia at the dawn of the 20th century, developed in Japan, but now flourishing in China, culturing produces a product nearly identical to the real thing at a fraction of the cost. Fortunately, despite mass production, large, perfect, exquisitely beautiful pearls remain rare and wildly expensive. The author obviously enjoys himself, traveling the world to pearl conventions, observing sales and auctions, interviewing experts, dealers, farmers, scientists and eccentric pearl aficionados, working on an oyster vessel, pausing to deliver historical lessons, entrepreneurial success stories and—inevitably—bad news about the environment. Oysters, wild or farmed, require clean water, but the vastly more productive mussels used in China grow fine in polluted rice paddies.
A satisfying mixture of history, science and popular culture à la similar books on salt, diamonds, potatoes, cod, uranium, etc.