"Not only on their size," I replied, "but also according to their shape, their water--in other words, their color--and their orient-- in other words, that dappled, shimmering glow that makes them so delightful to the eye. The finest pearls are called virgin pearls, or paragons; they form in isolation within the mollusk's tissue. They're white, often opaque but sometimes of opalescent transparency, and usually spherical or pear-shaped. The spherical ones are made into bracelets; the pear-shaped ones into earrings, and since they're the most valuable, they're priced individually. The other pearls that stick to the oyster's shell are more erratically shaped and are priced by weight. Finally, classed in the lowest order, the smallest pearls are known by the name seed pearls; they're priced by the measuring cup and are used mainly in the creation of embroidery for church vestments."
"But it must be a long, hard job, sorting out these pearls by size," the Canadian said.
"No, my friend. That task is performed with eleven strainers, or sieves, that are pierced with different numbers of holes. Those pearls staying in the strainers with twenty to eighty holes are in the first order. Those not slipping through the sieves pierced with 100 to 800 holes are in the second order. Finally, those pearls for which one uses strainers pierced with 900 to 1,000 holes make up the seed pearls."
"How ingenious," Conseil said, "to reduce dividing and classifying pearls to a mechanical operation. And could master tell us the profits brought in by harvesting these banks of pearl oysters?"
"According to Sirr's book," I replied, "these Ceylon fisheries are farmed annually for a total profit of 3,000,000 man-eaters."
"Francs!" Conseil rebuked.
"Yes, francs! 3,000,000 francs!" I went on. "But I don't think these fisheries bring in the returns they once did. Similarly, the Central American fisheries used to make an annual profit of 4,000,000 francs during the reign of King Charles V, but now they bring in only two-thirds of that amount. All in all, it's estimated that 9,000,000 francs is the current yearly return for the whole pearl-harvesting industry."
"But," Conseil asked, "haven't certain famous pearls been quoted at extremely high prices?"
"Yes, my boy. They say Julius Caesar gave Servilia a pearl worth 120,000 francs in our currency."
"I've even heard stories," the Canadian said, "about some lady in ancient times who drank pearls in vinegar."
"Cleopatra," Conseil shot back.
"It must have tasted pretty bad," Ned Land added.
"Abominable, Ned my friend," Conseil replied. "But when a little glass of vinegar is worth 1,500,000 francs, its taste is a small price to pay."
"I'm sorry I didn't marry the gal," the Canadian said, throwing up his hands with an air of discouragement.
"Ned Land married to Cleopatra?" Conseil exclaimed.
"But I was all set to tie the knot, Conseil," the Canadian replied in all seriousness, "and it wasn't my fault the whole business fell through. I even bought a pearl necklace for my fiancée, Kate Tender, but she married somebody else instead. Well, that necklace cost me only $1.50, but you can absolutely trust me on this, professor, its pearls were so big, they wouldn't have gone through that strainer with twenty holes."
"My gallant Ned," I replied, laughing, "those were artificial pearls, ordinary glass beads whose insides were coated with Essence of Orient."
"Wow!" the Canadian replied. "That Essence of Orient must sell for quite a large sum."
"As little as zero! It comes from the scales of a European carp, it's nothing more than a silver substance that collects in the water and is preserved in ammonia. It's worthless."
"Maybe that's why Kate Tender married somebody else," replied Mr. Land philosophically.
"But," I said, "getting back to pearls of great value, I don't think any sovereign ever possessed one superior to the pearl owned by Captain Nemo."
"This one?" Conseil said, pointing to a magnificent jewel in its glass case.