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Pearl Divers of Japan: The Ama Culture

Group of women Ama pearl divers of Japan from the 1950s

Off the coast of Okinawa, a 2000 year old culture of the Ama or free-divers is still going strong. These gutsy, fearless divers had a major role in developing the cultured pearl industry started by Mikimoto. They dove down and planted the oysters and brought them back to the surface. Amas live in tight knit communities and are each other’s “family” in all the ways we might expect a community of women to support one another. There are Ama divers in China as well.

Ama traditional practices revolved around diving for seafood. The free-diving began much before we developed masks, oxygen tanks, and dive suits. The women would simply don a white loin cloth thought to symbolize purity and possibly deter sharks. Early Ama’s dove by inhaling gently and plunging straight down. Some dive on the exhale. The Amas stay a few minutes underwater, seeking abalone and other seafood. A special blowout upon surfacing creates a slight whistle which alerts the boat guardian that they are up safely. They only spend about 60 seconds at the surface before reentering the depths. In modern times, they wear wetsuits and use masks.

Alma Pearl Diver

According to an article from somethingcurated.com, we learn that “For close to two thousand years, intrepid women residing along the coasts of Japan have earned a remarkable livelihood diving into the depths of the Pacific Ocean for abalone, oysters, pearls, seaweed, and other shellfish. Ama, 海女 in Japanese, translates directly to “women of the sea” in English. These impressive diving women were recorded as early as 755AD in the ancient Japanese anthology of poetry, the Man’yoshu. Early ama were known to dive for seafood and were honored with the task of retrieving abalone for shrines and imperial emperors. Ama traditionally wore white as it was believed to deter sharks. Early divers wore only a loincloth but later in the 20th century an all-white sheer diving uniform was adopted.”

“Even in modern times, ama dive without scuba gear or air tanks, making them traditional free divers. Pearl diving ama were considered rare in the early years of the practice, however, Mikimoto Kōkichi’s discovery and production of the cultured pearl in 1893 produced a great demand for these specialists. He established the Mikimoto Pearl Island in Toba and used the renowned female divers’ findings to grow his business internationally. Women began diving as ama as early as 12 and 13 years old, taught by their elders. Despite their early start, divers are known to be active well into their 70s and are rumored to live longer due to their diving training and disciplines. In Japan, women were superior divers due to the distribution of their fat and their ability to hold their breath. Utilizing special techniques that allow them to descend to depths of 30 meters, ama hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time,” the article continues.

The Amas no longer participate in the cultured pearl industry which has become more industrialized, although machines can never replace pearl assessment and grading.  If you want to read a great book about this, try “Pearl of China” by Anchee Min. It’s worth reading especially on a lounge chair with some lemonade or something stronger. I found it very engrossing.

Pearl divers of Japan 1950s

 

Ancient World

Ancient Garnet Ring

If you’ve been reading my newsletter for a long time, you probably know that I am fascinated with the ancient world and its influence on modern life. I remember going to Pompeii a few years back and learning that the ancients invented street signs, gutters, and fast-food stalls in the marketplace. They invented spas with hot and cold baths. One guide told us that the word “Spa” comes from the Latin “salutate per aqua” which means “health through water.”

The ancient goldsmiths had to work twice as hard as modern goldsmiths, because they had to refine the gold, hammer out thin sheets used to form breastplates, collars, and bracelets. They had to pull their own wire (something we do in my studio), drill out tiny, delicate gems for beading, and scrounge for gemstones to set. I’m sure there was a hierarchy in the labor pool, but still…

I love the fact that so many of the things we still do, build, or wear have their roots in the ancient world. The ancients developed a vocabulary of design that has outlasted each generation. Who doesn’t love hoop earrings or high carat gold set with cabochons, or cuff bracelets? Ankle bracelets, arm bands, pearl drops….

In a recent article in the New York Times, Kallos Gallery director Madeleine Perridge explains:

“In a gleaming shade of warm yellow so identifiable as the high gold content of ancient jewelry, the bracelet was tapered smoothly inside and out. Compared with the often mass-produced, uniformly finished pieces in the windows of contemporary mega-brands on that same street, it was singular in its warm patina — and distinguished by the fact that it had been owned and worn by someone more than 3,000 years ago."

It also reflected, at least in part, why there is an active market for ancient jewelry today.

“Ancient jewelry is the very definition of a unique piece,” said Madeleine Perridge, director of Kallos Gallery in London. “A lot of people who collect art of any sort are looking for that unique aspect, that sense of connecting you to the past, linking you very strongly to the people who may have originally worn it.”

You’ll see in some of the photos contained here how our sense of style has merged with ancient tastes insofar as gold jewelry goes. In this crazy world, the fact that we have some language and style continuity with the past is very grounding and feels very “clean” to me. Beauty has its eternal language.

Ancient gold jewelry

The World's First Recorded Opalized Pearls Discovered

two colorful opalized pearls on black background

The world's first recorded opalized pearls, relics of creatures in an ancient inland sea dating back 65 million years, have been unearthed by two miners in the South Australian outback.

Dr. Ben Grguric from the SA Museum, where the pearls have gone on display, said opal miners Dale Price and Tanja Burk were sorting through a spoil heap when they made the discovery.

"The miners pick out anything that glows with ultraviolet light because even a small chip of opal might be worth something if it's high quality with a high range of colors," Dr. Grguric. "It turns out these resembled pearls."

Opals formed when seas dried up and alkaline soil dissolved the silica in certain rocks, as well as bones and shells - and in this case, pearls.

"A lot of the opal fossils, including bones and shells, were formed during the cretaceous period, which was an era earlier than 65 million years ago and the age of the dinosaurs," Dr. Grguric said.

The pearls are still owned by Mr. Price and Ms. Burk, and are only on display for a short time at the SA Museum. "It's difficult to put a price on them, and from the point of view of a gem they're not particularly valuable," Dr. Grguric said.

"But from a scientific view, you'd argue they were priceless." He said there were a lot of shell fossils in the Coober Pedy region, and those with a sharp eye may come across more opalized pearls in the future.

I'm definitely keen to see some more of these pieces unearthed!

Now, the Good News

vintage European cut diamond on a white background

Last week, I sent out a client letter about Alrosa and the current government sanctions against Russian diamonds.  Read it here.

Today, I received notice from GIA (Gemological Institute of America) that the body will soon offer GIA Source Verify, a geographical origin notation for natural, mined diamonds that will be included on the GIA diamond reports we all use. GIA will also identify lab-grown diamonds.

Several of you have written or called about the diamond situation.  You wanted to know whether lab-grown diamonds are a good alternative to buying sanctioned material.   Indeed, lab-grown diamonds represent one way to buy knowing that the gem has not come from Russian mines or underserved mining communities.

The other thing to consider is natural, mined diamonds recycled from vintage jewelry.  The market for vintage diamonds is continuing strong for lots of good reasons.  One, vintage diamonds are recycled, so no new mining, no conflict diamonds, no sanctions… just a beautiful old stone. The older stones are cut very differently than new material, so they glow rather than sparkle, although they do have a lot of life.

Old European Cut


I love them. So, if you are in the market, please let me know.  We can do some amazing work with the old, mined stones.  Stay tuned for my latest project with one.

Regards from the studio,

Diana

When a Diamond is not Just a Diamond

An Alrosa diamond mine in Minry, Russia

The bloody, brutal war in Ukraine caused the US government and its allies to ban the import of Russian diamonds. The jewelry industry fully supports this measure, but the sanction levied by the United States is porous because most Russian diamond material is sent to India for cutting and India is very friendly with the Russians.

Once diamonds are cut and released into the market, it becomes rather impossible to know their geographical origin. One large trading platform is suggesting the following:. “Buyers wishing to avoid polished diamonds sourced from Russian rough are encouraged to request the following statement on all invoices: “The polished diamonds herein invoiced are cut from rough mined in [country].” Alternatively, for polished of unknown rough sources: “To the best of our knowledge, the polished diamonds herein invoiced do not originate from Russian rough diamonds exported after April 1, 2022.”

That puts the responsibility back onto the dealer at the time of transaction but it’s a weak solution requiring trust and transparency all the way back down the chain. It’s a real problem. I’m going to try and source Canadian diamonds until the industry gets a better handle on this.

I attended a seminar about this last week. According to a report written by Hans Merket for the International Peace Information Service, “Alrosa is the largest diamond producing company in the world by volume. In 2021 it sold 45.5 million carats of diamonds worth USD 4.2 billion. Alrosa accounts for over 90% of Russia’s diamond production. Russia is the world’s largest diamond producing country, accounting for approximately one third of global supply. Alrosa’s main mining operations are located in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) and the Arkhangelsk region in the northwestern part of Russia. In addition, Alrosa has important activities in Africa, especially in Angola, the world’s fourth largest producer…”

Alrosa has three major shareholders, two of which are the Russian government. The third share is thought to be owned by a mix of oligarchs and close associates of Vladimir Putin. Money from diamond sales finances military equipment and operations among other things so it’s easy to see why Alrosa should be punished. There is a suspicion that Alrosa’s mining extends to uranium for nuclear warheads.

The implications for the jewelry industry are complex because we are a tight, international weave with buying and trading platforms in far-flung places, including Belgium, Israel, the UAE, India and China. Historically, Belgium is a major diamond hub and India is using the opportunity to muscle into first place by assuring Russia of continued business dealings.

There is much more to this story which I’d be happy to discuss further with any of you on this list of beloved clients. We have shared many joyous occasions together through the jewelry you buy from me. You’ve trusted me to source gemstones from responsible mining communities and I have.

Now, 23 years later into my career, the stakes for geographical origin are higher than ever. The way forward is still opaque but the industry is working towards new accountability measures.

Sending best wishes for health and peace in your own homes.

Diana

Are Lab-Grown Diamonds "Real?"

three lab-grown diamonds of various shapes and cuts on white background

In an ever-changing gem marketplace, one of the newest additions to the diamond world is the lab-grown stones. Historically, diamond simulants like Cubic Zirconia (CZ) and moissanite offered customers a chance to wear something white and sparkly without having to buy a natural diamond.

In the last few years, a new type of lab-grown diamond has come to market. The lab manufacturers call it a “diamond” because, chemically speaking, it has the hardness of natural diamond and the same chemical makeup. Lab-grown diamonds are made from highly-pressurized carbon, which mimics—but is far from identical—to the same growth process in a natural stone. Lab-grown diamonds take months to grow. Natural diamonds take millions of years and come from deep in the Earth’s mantle. Lab diamonds are grown into rough, which is sent to India (the world’s major diamond cutting center) to be cut and polished, just as natural diamonds are. Lab-grown diamonds have inclusions in them, although natural diamonds have a wider variety of inclusions.

So are the lab-grown stones diamonds or not? The marketers insist that there should be no distinction between a mined diamond and a lab-grown in the eyes of the consumer. Yet, the jewelry and gemology world goes to great pains to identify which diamonds are natural (mined) and which are lab-grown because no one wants to inadvertently sell a lab-grown as a natural.

Natural, mined diamonds are much pricier than lab-grown because naturals have been coveted since they first became unearthed, some 2000 years ago. Many factors go into natural diamond pricing in comparison to lab-grown stones. However, natural diamonds have a stronger resale value. A fine, mined diamond is still far rarer than a lab-grown and most people find it more romantic to own a piece of nature. But many people are coming around to lab-grown because one can often get a larger, whiter diamond for the same money or less and bling matters.

Lab-grown makers cite the more benign environmental effects of growing their stones, yet the technology to grow a stone uses a lot of energy 24 hours a day, plus microwave heat to replicate the growing environment of natural stones. Environmental effects from a mining operation are huge, even when responsibly done.

One advantage for my clients is that the same money buys a much larger lab-grown diamond, so if size is important and the budget is crucial, lab-grown might be a good choice.

Feel free to call with questions or if you want to explore this further.

Hooray for spring!

Diana

Jewelry Auctions and Hot Commodities: Part 1

Side by side image of Elizabeth Taylor and a pair of her earrings

An industry magazine recently featured an interview with Francois Curiel, the international director of the luxury division of Christies and its Chairman for Europe. I thought I’d share some interesting bits with you since this is an area most of us never get to know well.  The most relevant parts of the article for you were his comments on the collections of famous people.

In 2011, Christies handled the sale of the estate of Elizabeth Taylor, who had a dream collection of diverse, ultrafine examples of gems in every category. Curiel tells us that “every piece was the best of its kind—the brightest gems, the richest natural pearls, many high-quality diamonds and Kashmir sapphires, Burma rubies, vintage, and contemporary signed pieces."

BlogAuctionETaylor web

Provenance plays a huge role in establishing auction prices, though, and the fact that these jewels belonged to one of the world’s most famous actresses added huge monetary value to the lot.  Elizabeth Taylor knew a lot about gems and jewelry, and she chose her pieces according to the same standards someone in the business would use if purchasing for a particular client. Curiel cites this auction as a high point in his 50-year career.

He also talks about the auction of two diamond bracelets belonging to Marie Antoinette which sold at Christies for $8.2 million with an opening estimate of $2 million to $4 million. Curiel tells us that “previous ownership by royalty, aristocrats or celebrities enhances authenticity and gives the piece a persona. It can dramatically multiply the piece’s value beyond its physical worth.”

BlogAuctionmarieAntoinette web

Marie Antoinette bought these bracelets in 1776 and had them delivered to her daughter, Madame Royale, who lived from 1778-1851.  Since then, the bracelets had been passed down through the family line until they were sold recently at the auction. Curiel told us that the stones themselves were probably worth around $100,000 but the provenance created the price.

Best regards from the studio. Spring is coming!

Diana

Undersea Colors: The Luminosity of Pearls

Group of wild pearls

It’s no secret that I love pearls’ subtle colors and soft light. I love all the shapes and the mixed colors that happen randomly in many pearls. Admittedly, I wear mostly rounds and teardrop baroques but all the crazy shapes we used to cast aside are considered fun to wear and for good reason.

pearlsaudrey Pearls best conch pearl

Strands can be worn at any length, with layering necklaces, or just as single, beautiful statements about your current mood: “I’m feeling cozy today” say the browns and taupes.  “I’m glamorous and sexy,” say the blacks and grays. “I’m aglow, lighthearted, and in a classic mode,” say the whites and pinks. “I’m chic and I like unconventional beauty.”

PearlJewelry


I found this chart that gives you a one-word color identifier for when you want to add some pearls to your collection but you’re not sure what to call them.

Pearl Colors

Happy February to the Amethyst Babies!

Bright and vivid purple faceted amethyst gemsone

Your purple birthstone ranges from rich plums to pale lavender. It is the most beloved of all the quartzes and mined worldwide. Amethysts appear in royal jewel collections as well as in most of our personal jewelry collections.

DWDAmethystFlowerdrop web DWDamethysttwr er grad web

The word amethyst comes from the Greek “amethystos” which means “remedy against drunkenness.” The very literal (in this case) Greeks figured that a purple, wine-colored stone should relate to Bacchus, the god of wine and profligate living. Since they did have a sense of proportionality, they assigned amethyst as a preventative against the consequences of too many bacchanalias. I’m not sure how the stone got assigned to February, but that’s another topic.

Other presumed amethyst powers: The wearer obtains personal empowerment, intelligence, and gets rid of evil thoughts.

The original source of amethyst was Russia. In the 19th century, a huge stash was found in Brazil, which is where we get most of our material from now, although Africa and other parts of South America (Uruguay, Bolivia) have gorgeous material. Amethyst resides in geodes that can be so large we can stand in them! Not to be outdone, Arizona has its own amethyst supply at Four Peaks.  There is amethyst in Arizona at Four Peaks, too.

BlogAmethystGeode

Colors: rich purple with red or blue undertones, depending on the origin source, Brazil’s southern deposits contain lavender material as well as ametrine, the combination of amethyst and citrine that is really stunning in its most beautiful form.

BlogAmethystDyberAmetrine

Amethyst, like the other quartzes (citrine, rose quartz, crystal quartz) is relatively inexpensive on the gem price continuum, occurs in large, juicy sizes for jewelry, and complements every skin tone. You don’t have to be a February baby to love and enjoy it. I know lots of great carvers who use it with stunning results.

Best regards from the studio,
Diana

Dianawithroseqtz web

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