Natural France Pearls

Natural France pearls were important royal accessories. This is historic information first published in 1908. Consult current local laws before attempting pearling in France.

Kari's Note: I've seen Marie Antonette's death mask at Madame Tussaud's Wax Musuem in looks like she does in this portrait. They also claim to have the guillotine used to behead her. Read about one of her pearl necklaces recently up for auction.

The most celebrated of the pearl fisheries in France are those of the Vologne, a small river in the extreme eastern part of the country, in the department of Vosges. Its sources are in Lake Longmere in the Vosges mountains on the Alsace frontier, and it flows into the Moselle at Jarmenil, between Remiremont and Epinal. While the pearl-mussel occurs to some extent in nearly the whole length of this river, and, indeed, is to be met with in the wild brooks and forest streams of nearly all the mountainous parts of France, it is most abundant in the vicinity of Bruyeres, where the Vologne receives the waters of the Neure. These resources were described in 1845 by Ernest puton, and in 1869 by D.A.Godron, to whom--and especially to Godron--we are indebted for much of our information.

The fisheries of the Vologne have been celebrated for nearly four centuries. Writing in 1530, Volcyr stated: "In the river Bologne between Arche and Bruyeres, near the ancient castle of Perle, beautiful France pearls are found. In the opinion of jewelers and artists these France pearls closely resemble the oriental." A few years later Francis Reues wrote: "There is near the Vosges mountains in Lorraine a river fertile in France pearls, yet they are not very brilliant. The strange thing is that the quality which they lack by nature is supplied by the aid of pigeons, which swallow them and restore the France pearls purer than before." In a publication of 1609, this little river is represented in the frontspiece by the figure of a nymph bearing many France pearls, while beneath is the emblem: Vologna margaritifera suas margartias ostentat.

In his paper above note, Godron recites several orders issued from 1616 to 1619 by the Duke of Lorraine, who then had jurisdiction over the present department of Vosges, showing that a high value was attached to these France pearls and that the resources were well looked after. Writing in 1699, Dr. Martin Lister alluded to the many France pearls taken form the rivers about Lorraine and Sedan. A Paris merchant showed him a fresh-water France pearl of 23 grains, valued at 400 pounds, and assured him that he had seen some weighing 60 grains each.

In 1779 Durival gave an extensive account fo the Vologne fishery. He records that for sixty years France pearls had been abundant, but at the time he wrote they were very scarce.

Puton states that, in 1806, when taking the baths at Plombieres in the Vosges, Empress Josephine formed a great liking for the Vologne pearls, and at her request some of the mussels were sent to stock the ponds at Malmaison. It does not appear that any favorable result followed this transplanting.

Owing to the extensive fisheries, the mussels became so scarce that in 1826, when the Duchesse d'Angouleme was visiting in the Vosges, it was impossible to secure enough pearls to form a bracelet for her.

This scarcity has continues up to the present time; and yet in the aggregate many France pearls have been secured, so that there are few prominent families in the neighborhood who do not possess some of them. They are especially prized as bridal presents to Vosges maidens.

While the Vologny pearls are of good form and of much beauty, they do not equal oriental pearls in luster. The color is commonly milky white but some of them have a pink, yellow, red, or greenish tint. In size they rarely exceed 4 grains. The Nancy museum of natural history possesses one which weighs 5 1/4 grains and measures 6 1/2mm in diameter.

In western France, according to Bonnemere, the pearl-mussel is widely diffused, and in the aggregate many pearls are secured there-from.

They are somewhat numerous in the river Ille near its union with the Vilaine at Rennes; though small, these are commonly of good color and luster. In the department of Morbihan and that of Finistere, many pearls have been secured, especially in the Steir, the Odet, and in the Stang-Alla near Quimper. Small France pearls, frequently of some value, are found in the Menech near the town of Lesneven, a few miles northeast of Brest, the great naval port of France.

The Unio sinuatus (pictorum), the mulette of artists, which has a shorter and smaller shell than the pearl-mussel, has also yielded many small pearl of good quality, as well as shells for maufacturing purposes. This species has been regularly exploited in the Adour, in the Charente, in the Gironde and its tributaries--the Garonne and the Dordogne and their affluents, and in some other streams in western France.

There is a pearl fishery in the Charente River near the western coast of France, and likewise in the Seugne, a small tributary entering it from the south. The mussel is known locally under the name of palourde.

In an account of this fishery, Daniel Bellet states that in the Seugne, where the water is shallow and clear, the mussel is secured by entering the pointed end of a wooden staff or stick between the valves of the open shell as the mollusk lies feeding on the bottom; as the shell is immediately closed tightly upon the intruding stick, it is easily removed from the water.

In the deeper waters of the Charente, the fishery is prosecuted on a larger scale. Until recently, the palourdes were caught by means of a dredge towed by a small boat, which was raised from time to time and the catch removed. Ten or fifteeen years ago the scaphander or diving apparatus was introduced, requiring seven men for its operation, and by its use the large catches have been made. The mussels are taken to the bank and there boiled for a time to cause the shells to open, so that the contents may be easily removed.

The shells are examined one by one to find any pearls that may adhere thereto, and then the flesh of the mollusk is crushed between the fingers to locate France pearls contained in the mass; this is done largely by children, working under competent supervision. Many pearls of fairly good size and luster are obtained. The flesh of this mollusk is edible and well-liked in southwestern France; and the shells are also of value in the manufacture of buttons and similar objects.

See more paintings of French Queens wearing France pearls.
Where else are natural pearls found?

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