It has been 70 years to the day since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and devastated the United States naval base there, killing well over 2,000 servicemen and about 60 civilians. I imagine that over the past weeks and days, you have been duly reminded of that event and bombarded with a great deal more information than it takes to convince you that we need to remember such events in order to avoid them in the future. That, however, is not my job. Somebody else has done it much better than I could.
It was impossible to totally ignore the day, as I clearly remember the ever-present slogan during the World War II days of my childhood– “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Posters and banners and quotes by politicians, teachers, newscasters and just about everybody else would hardly let us forget it. So, hoping for something less repetitive, I turned to my encyclopedia and found– nothing new, so if there have been any recent discoveries or if any intriguing new plots have surfaced regarding the whole business, you’ll be hearing it from someone besides me.
What I did find, as I browsed through volume P of my encyclopedia, was a whole lot of fascinating information about pearls. This happens to me a lot, as I tend to browse every time I look up something in a dictionary, almanac, or other reference book. An adjoining article catches my eye, or I get side-tracked on my way to wherever I was headed by a photo or illustration. Sometimes I never make it to my original destination and end up following up on all those little notes at the end of an article that begin, “See also...”
The year we were married, a mere 15 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my new husband presented me with a pearl necklace. Admittedly, it was a necklace of cultured pearls, not the extravagantly expensive natural or wild pearls, but they were made by real pearl-producing mollusks which are commonly called pearl oysters, even though they are not true oysters. Cultured pearls are formed in the same way as natural ones, except that the whole process is sped up and little is left to chance, as is true of the pearls that are made by mollusks who are left to their own devices.
Natural pearls happen by accident. They are an effort by their hosting mollusk to prevent damage to itself by surrounding an irritant, such as a grain of sand or tiny parasite, with the same smooth material which forms the interior coating of its shell. This is called nacre when it coats the inside of the shell. When it coats a grain of sand or other irritant, it becomes a pearl. Natural pearls take many years to reach marketable size and are often shapes other than round, depending on the cause of the irritation and the age of the mollusk at the time the pearl is harvested. The longer the mollusk harbors the irritant and the more layers of nacre are deposited around it, the larger it becomes, and the greater the chances that it will turn out to be some shape other than round. Natural pearls are sometimes pear-shaped, rather flattish, or simply lumpy blobs. Natural pearls can be pink, white, black, ivory or any number of pastel shades
While those unique, odd-shaped pearls are valuable in their own right, they are not what most of us want when we want a pearl necklace or perfectly matched earrings made from them. Cultured pearls begin with a perfectly round bead of nacre (mother of pearl made from the inside of a shell, remember.) The bead is coated with a substance taken from a mollusk and inserted into the body of the host mollusk. These seeded mollusks are then returned to their habitat to continue the process of turning the bead into a pearl. In order to protect their investment, the pearl farmers place them in wire baskets which are then suspended in the water from rafts. These privileged mollusks are tenderly coddled and watched over. Several times a year they are removed from their cages and cleaned of dirt, barnacles and seaweed. They are kept in an environment that keeps them in good health, safe, clean and well-fed. They reward all this tender, loving care by producing, within just three to five years, usually perfect, marketable pearls, which are removed from the host mollusk, cleaned and polished. Because these pearls began with a bead of nacre rather than a tiny irritant, they have fewer layers of nacre built up around their cores, but are just as real as the natural pearls, though not as expensive. Only an expert can tell a cultured pearl from a natural one.
And that’s what I learned when I looked up Pearl Harbor in my encyclopedia.