Thursday, August 09, 2012

Oil of Pearls

The Recipe
Put upon a Plate any Quantity you please of Pearls, and pour over them some good distill’d Vinegar. When the Pearls are dissolved, add a small Quantity of Gum Arabic. Keep the solution for Use Wash your face before you bathe it with this Solution, which will soon dry of itself. This is one of the best Secrets that have been invented for rendering the face both white and fair. (Abdeker: or, the art of preserving beauty, p. 76)

Breaking down the recipe
Pearls Occurs naturally when a small object, lika sand or similar manages to get inside an oyster. To protect itself it surrounds the irritant with nacre, creating a rounded object- the rounded the better. Wild ones are rare, but they can be cultivated. Used in jewelry, which I’m sure you all know.

Vinegar A liquid containing acetic acid and water. There are several kinds of vinegar and it has been used for thousands of years in food and as a beauty product. Astringent and somewhat anti-bacterial as well as having conserving properties. Also said to have a whitening effect on skin. Note that distilled vinegar has a very high proportion of acetic acid, which can be corrosive on skin. Either add water or use ordinary vinegar instead.

Gum Arabic a natural gum that comes from the sap of acacia trees. Can be used as glue or bonder, but are water soluble. Edible and can be found in cosmetics today- safe in other words.

My thoughts
Despite the name there is no actual oil in this recipe and what is more, it contains nothing harmful. It is also very straightforward. The pearls provide shine and luster, the vinegar ha multiple purposes, dissolving the pearls, whitening the skin and provide a medium to get the pearls on your face and the Gum Arabic provide a bonding agent so the pearls stay put.

I would like to try this one very much indeed. Unfortunately I don’t have any pearls laying around for the purpose. Do you? There are some pearlescent or nacreous pigments, like mica, that may work as a substitute. There is also something called Pearl powder which is used in China and is said to be very good for sensitive, or acne-prone skin as well as having a whitening effect. It’s made from ground-up pearls, so it would probably work perfectly and you can find it in some health food stores. However, even if it isn’t as pricey as pearls, it’s still much too expensive to be bought just for trying out a recipe. I’m told that you can buy it very cheaply in China though, so if someone I know takes a trip there I will ask them to get me some.

EDIT: Madame Berg pointed out what I didn't think about- cheap freshwater pearls that you can find in DIY shops. I did a qick search and buying a string or two is not expensive. Seems I will be able to test this recipe after all!


  1. Very interesting! So, what would be the result if one used those cheap, cultivated sweet water pearls that all DIY jewellery shops carry?

    1. Hmm, those... I didn't think of those! Very well, I think- that pearl powder seem to be made out of freshwater pearls. I guess they used saltwater pearls in the 18th century, but nacre is nacre...

  2. Replies
    1. Well, it may end with a catastrophe, who know? ;)

  3. I suspect it won't work... contrary to the story about Cleopatra, I am told pearls don't really dissolve in vinegar. Pearls were so expensive at this time that it's likely the Abdeker person just heard about this recipe without testing it.

    1. As Abdeker is a figment of the imagination, I am sure you are right- he never did. ;) Joke aside, I suspect that Antoine LeCamus who wrote the book, compiled the recipes rather than inventing them, so he might not have tried it out, no. (Several of the recipes are then lifted straight into The Toilet of Flora) Still, the majority of pearls found aren't perfect and some are so irregular and/or have a damaged surface so that they are not fit to be made into beads. It would be an extreme extravaganze indeed to use up a perfect necklace, but if you could get your hands on third-rate pearls, then they probably weren't that expensive. I don't know though, I will have to read up on pearls in the 18th century first. :)

  4. is someone's experiments with dissolving pearls. It seems actually if you keep refreshing the vinegar, it can kind of dissolve them after about 72 hours.

    Fake pearls were made in the 18th century from mother of pearl and crushing up small/undesirable pearls to forge larger ones. I was thinking maybe someone tried dissolving some of those false pearls for a mixture like this, which depending on the binder might dissolve easily and yield a good 'oily' mixture.

    1. Oh, interesting! The recipe above calls for distilled vinegar, which probably would dissolve it quicker, but would not be so nice to have on your skin- I was thinking of going the more ordinary vinegar route...

      And I see I should read all my comments before I answer- I see that you have already mentioned damaged pearls here. :) The point of the makeup is the nacre, and that is the same if it comes from a perfect pearl of from one made of defect one. Nacre is nacre is nacre, after all.

      On anotehr note, I'm trying out A Curious Varnish for the Face and though it's not done yet, the solution already gives the skin a faint sheen. and it smells heavnly- if it fails I will be able to wear it as perfume.

    2. I was looking for a recipe for false pearls that I remembered from the 18th century, and found actually an earlier version of your pearl-oil recipe above... William Salmon's Polygraphice says, to make it, "Dissolve pearls in juice of lemons or distilled vinegar, which digest in horse-dung, till they send forth a clear oil, which will swim to the top: this is one of the most excellent cosmetics or beautifiers in the world." While Abdeker seems to expect the pearls will disintegrate easily if just sprinkled with vinegar, Polygraphice seems to more reasonably expect they need to sit soaking for a while. (But notably, Salmon classified pearl oil amongst 'Cosmetics which beautify without anything of paint.')

    3. Ah, I need to read Polygraphice- I have it on my pile of "going to read-books". :)

      To be fair, Abdeker says "some" vinegar and that can be any amount, really, and to wait until the pearls are dissolved without saying when that happen. It sounds a bit hazardous to keep evberything on a plate, though. I think of my home with 2 dogs, 4 cats and a somewhat acceident prone husband and then I think of what could happen with a plate with vinegar and pearls... I will use a jar with a lid! Abdeker doesn't talk about paint either, he just says "white and fair", with no mention on how opaque it is. I doubt it will cover up well- seems to me that it ought to work more as a modern highlighter.


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