Peeling Pearls

The art of peeling pearls was much more common when natural pearls were the only available pearls.

Pearls and Lilies on the Mississippi
Pearls and Lilies on the Mississippi River

We don't hear much about pearl peeling today, but it was a common practice when natural pearls were the only source of these precious gems. I often hear it when folks talk about preparing the natural pearls from the Mississippi River here in Muscatine for jewelry.

Almost all pearls are in perfect condition for setting when they are found; all that needs to be done is to rub them with a damp or moist cloth or with a powder of finely pulverized small or small pearls, and they are then ready for the succeeding processes. If there are any blemishes, these can be removed by peeling pearls or "faking," although few fine pearls require any such treatments; and then the gems may be drilled, strung, and set, and all that is necessary for their preservation is due care and attention.

Pearls are frequently injured in opening the shells or in removal of the outer layers around the true pearly nacre. Both the Chinese and the Sulu fishermen are very clever in the art of pearl peeling and pearl improving.

The method of peeling pearls is called "faking," although it is a perfectly legitimate operation. All it requires is a very sharp knife, a set of files, and a powder obtained by grinding pearls or pearl shells.

This powder is placed upon a buffer of leather or cloth to polish such parts of a layer as may not have been entirely removed. The Chinese are unusually adept in peeling pearls and have been frequently known to sell as true pearls scales that they have removed, after filling these scales or peelings with wax or shellac, and strengthening them by cementing them on a piece of mother-of-pearl. They are then set with the convex side up and the edges carefully covered so as to conceal the deception.

The Chinese are also very expert in removing layers of mother-of-pearl form an encysted or buried pearl taking off layer after layer with the greatest care, and with a delicacy of touch that enables them to realize the moment when the pearl itself has been reached, rarely injuring the latter, although the coating is almost as hard as the enclosed pearl.

Peeling pearls is employed to remove a protuberance or acid stain, to smooth a surface broken by abrasion, or to take off a dead spot produced by careless wearing of the pearls and allowing them to rub against one another. There are many instances where, by carefully peeling pearls, a perfect layer and skin have been brought to light, and where irregular or broken pearls, or those with a blemish, have been rendered much more valuable by peeling.

But in many other cases the pearl has not only been reduced in value, but even rendered altogether worthless, when it had a dead center or was pitted with clay or other impurities.

If a pearl has been injured by coming in contact with the acids frequently used in medicine, the surface may become roughened; or it may be scratched by being rubbed against a stone in case of a fall or other accident. If the surface only is injured, it can be restored to its original beauty with only a slight loss of weight by carefully peeling pearls of their outer layers.

In skinning or peeling pearls, a magnifying glass, or preferably a fixed lens, such as is used by engravers, is of great assistance, and a sharp knife, or better still, the sharpened edge of a steel file, is a very essential instrument. Gloves are often worn by the one who is engaged in peeling pearls so that no perspiration shall reach the pearl and cause it to slip in the hand while it is being manipulated, and thus have a layer or more injured by the knife.

Streeter mentions a very interesting incident in regard to a genuine black pearl. This pearl, set with diamonds, was shown in a jeweler's window; but after exposure in this way for some time to the sun's rays, the brilliant black luster disappeared and gave place to a dull, grayish hue. When the pearl was removed from its setting, it was seen that the part which had not been exposed to the light was of as good color as when first removed from the shell. It was finally determined to skin off the outer layer, an operation which was performed with so much success that the original brilliant black hue was fully restored, proving that the action of the sunlight had only changed the color of the surface.

We may add that the pearl, although it was shown in the sun, may never have had a good "skin" or layer exposed; or the layer which was not perfect may have been affected by an exudation of the wearer produced by illness or medicine.

Frequently, when a small knob or protuberance appears in the pearl, or when it has adhered to another pearl or to the shell itself, this protuberance is polished off, and the pearl is drilled at this point. This portion of the surface, however carefully polished, will never have the true orient, but it is placed in the necklace in such a way that it is completely hidden.

Often pearls become scratched through rough usage, or by the knife used in opening the shells. These are occasionally polished by means of pearl-powder, or else the entire outer layer is removed, the new skin beneath appearing absolutely bright and perfect. It sometimes happens that a pearl will have a good luster, but a slightly roughened skin. This is at times polished down; but an experienced eye easily detects that it has been tampered with.

This information on peeling pearls is from a book published in 1908.

Find out more about pearls after peeling pearls.

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