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Pearls of Great Price

In 1917 Pierre Cartier purchased a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York from financier Morton Plant.  The price?  $100 plus a string of pearls coveted by Mrs. Plant and valued at $1 million.

In 1957 the same necklace was sold at auction for a mere $151,000.  The mansion still serves the Cartier jewelry company's flagship in New York, and were it ever to be sold, its value would be far greater than the 1917 figure.

The reason for the pearls' decline in value?  The scientific development of extraordinary knockoffs.

In the 1890s, several Japanese scientists were competing to develop a method of inducing oysters to produce round pearls.  Kokichi Mikimoto (yes, also a familiar name today on Fifth Avenue and elsewhere) was among these scientists.  By the 1920s, Mikimoto became the first to develop a commercially successful method of culturing pearls.  Despite an initial outcry against the "fake" pearls -- presumably from those lucky enough to own them -- the extreme scarcity of pearls harvested from coastal waters quickly made cultured pearls the industry standard.  Women everywhere could aspire to own what only a few decades before had been a means of displaying great wealth or royal status.

Kokichi Mikimoto

Today, it is a safe assumption that "pearls" offered for sale are cultured rather than natural.  And modern faux pearls have never seen the inside of an oyster. 

So, are those pearls in your Christmas stocking real?  It depends on who's asking -- and during which decade.

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