A gem of a show

Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend — but pearls saw her first. Today, a 50-pearl necklace could cost anywhere from $500 to $5000, but throughout history, the value of the pearl has been immeasurable. Choosing pearls for its ninth annual theme, the Gem & Mineral Show, running from Friday through Sunday at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is tapping into centuries’ worth of pursuit and fascination.

Pearls have long been symbols of luxury and celebration. At the legendary Pearl Banquet in Egypt, Cleopatra is said to have crushed a pearl from a pair of earrings and drunk its dust mixed with vinegar in front of Marc Antony. Supposedly, such unconventional disregard for material wealth was enough to win the young Roman’s heart. Pliny the Elder, the original gemologist, recorded in Natural History that Cleopatra’s pearls were equivalent in value to approximately 1,875,000 ounces of silver (24 million of today’s U.S. dollars).

Pearls form naturally when a foreign object becomes lodged in the tissue of an oyster or other mollusk. A substance called nacre surrounds the irritant, forming in layers; this becomes a pearl over time.

Nacre is made of calcium carbonate crystals, and mollusks also use it to prevent their shells from becoming rough.

Until the start of the 20th century, pearls were extremely difficult to harvest. Pearl hunting was what it sounded like: Pursuers dived up to 100 feet below the surface and checked oysters manually, one at a time, in search of the elusive gem.

In the early 1900s, several Japanese entrepreneurs figured out how to induce oysters to form pearls. The procedure, called “nucleating,” involves planting both a piece of oyster tissue and a nucleus of a mollusk shell inside an oyster. From there, the process occurs just as it does in nature.

Nucleating revolutionized the pearl industry, transforming a commodity historically reserved for the rich and privileged into the hands of everyday consumers. Pearls may no longer occupy the forefront of the gem market, but their legacy will always serve as a reminder of their iridescent past.

Though the market for pearls is not what it used to be, the demand for gems and minerals as a whole is on the rise.
“It’s almost like a cult-group,” said Robert Patak, owner of the Shadyside Mining Company. Patak has attended the Gem & Mineral Show every year since its debut.

“You get a person who collects this stuff — they become a junkie, basically,” he said. “They get addicted to minerals and rocks and beads and anything gemstone-related.”

As addictions go, this one’s expensive. “It’s nothing to pay five, 10 thousand dollars for a specimen anymore,” said Patak. “You could get the same specimen 10 years ago for $500.”

According to Patak, in recent years the Internet has spread the appeal of gems and minerals to a broader group of interest.

“It’s really a world market now,” he explained. “There’s more collectors now than there ever were.” Patak cited Germany and Russia as two examples of countries that have recently joined the gem and mineral market.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s annual Gem & Mineral Show has mirrored the trend of rising global interest. “It has gotten bigger in all aspects,” said Leigh Kish, a marketing assistant at the museum. “It’s consistently voted one of the best gem and mineral shows in the country.”

The growth is evident in the participation of vendors. The museum provides nearly all of its available space to make room for their booths, suites, and displays. “The vendors are international,” Kish explained, “so we have people flying all over the world to participate in the show.”

Another important part of the Gem & Mineral Show is its appeal to children. “It’s a lot of hands-on and take-stuff-home sort of activities,” Kish said.

Children have the opportunity to learn how to identify stones, including birthstones. There’s also a mining car exhibit in the works, where a car will drop off stones to be categorized.

Probably the most exciting of the children’s activities is sluicing (panning for gold).

“It’s an actual working sluice,” Kish said, “and once the children find the specimens they take them back to identify them and learn about them.”

For adults visiting the museum, vendors are the primary educators.

“It’s a learning experience for everyone — not just for children,” Kish said. “All the vendors are experienced in their fields and so they give little mini-lessons while you’re at their booth.”

Moses Jewelers, a family-owned chain of stores in Butler, Pa., is one such vendor. This will be Moses Jewelers’ eighth year participating in the Gem & Mineral Show.

“We bring rare pearls that people don’t see very often,” said Tim Moses, a member of the staff.

The show is an event for the vendors as much as the patrons. “I buy minerals every time,” Moses said. “I think the most interesting things I find are the mineral specimens that can be purchased.”

Kicking off with a Sea of Pearls Gala, this weekend’s Gem & Mineral Show is the culmination of a lot of hard work, planning, and passion.

“The whole thing is a bazaar, and so it’s a really great opportunity to see things that you wouldn’t normally see,” said Kish. “There’s really something for everyone.”