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The Fishy Secret Behind Priscilla Pearls

A creative scientist perfected his formula in Edgartown.

In 1920, mystery, curiosity, and rumors abounded when Ralph Bodman, a young chemist from Hyannis, came to the Island with a secret. He set up camp in the Mattakesett area of Katama in Edgartown. There, the herring alewives ran so thick in the creek near South Beach, it was said you could walk through the water and never touch bottom.

The herring had always been used for food, whether directly or through farming. Native Americans and settlers planted herring with maize, since it made excellent fertilizer for crops. Fishermen waited with great anticipation for the migration of the herring in the spring, and when the masses of fish appeared, they were ready with lines and nets to capture them.

Bodman bought huge quantities of herring from the Mattakesett Creek Company and hired about forty people to scale the fish for him. What he did next was almost sacrilege to the villagers: He kept the fish scales and threw away the meat. Not surprisingly, his activities drew immediate and considerable attention.

He kept a building in Mattakesett for scaling the herring, and the rest of the work was done at a location closer to downtown, where the windows were always darkened. An aura of mystery prevailed in the neighborhood. People tried to find out what was going on, but even the employees had no idea – they did their job and were paid as scalers, and they knew nothing else.

Growing to ten or eleven inches long and weighing about eight or nine ounces, herring have scales with a pearly appearance. Bodman, in the jewelry business for most of his life, had figured out how to remove the glittery substance from the fish scales. His secret process enabled him to coat glass beads and mother-of-pearl with his fish-scale emulsion to make strong synthetic pearls. Bodman didn’t invent the idea; he just did it well. His pearls looked authentic.

He processed one-half to two-thirds of a ton of scales every day; it took ten pounds of scales to produce an ounce of the pearl-essence material. When the emulsion was ready, the high-quality beads were dipped into the shiny liquid ten to twenty times. “We had equipment shipped in from the mainland,” he later said in a 1950 Vineyard Gazette interview, “but it didn’t take much. About all we needed was big barrels.”

It’s no mystery why Bodman went to such lengths. Pearls have been highly valued objects of beauty for many centuries, and because of this, the word pearl has become a symbol for something rare, fine, admirable, and valuable. Essentially there are three types of pearls: natural, cultured, and imitation.

A natural pearl forms when an irritant, such as a grain of sand, gets inside an oyster, mussel, or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid to coat the irritant; layer upon layer of this coating is deposited until a lustrous pearl is formed. A cultured pearl undergoes the same process, using an implanted bead or piece of shell, with a natural-looking end result. Creating synthetic pearls that appear realistic, on the other hand, has always been a challenge.

In most instances, a herring-scale faux-pearl coating is thin and may eventually wear off, and in some cases fakes can be recognized by loose little bits of dried essence surrounding the holes in the beads. However, Bodman’s formula didn’t have these flaws; it was superior in every way.

Bodman joined forces with Lina D. Call, who owned a souvenir and gift shop on the corner of Winter and North Water streets in Edgartown. A native Islander, Call owned the business with her husband, Charlie, who operated his plumbing business in another section of the building. She sold Priscilla Hancock candies and perhaps that was inspiration for naming Bodman’s jewelry Priscilla Pearls. She later named her store the Priscilla Gift Shop, and it remained that for many years. Priscilla Pearls were reported to be indistinguishable from cultured ones, and became a popular, affordable alternative to real pearls.

In the 1920s, Jane (Jackson) Cleveland owned a set of the pearls, and in 1939 when her daughter Doris was fifteen, she presented them to her. The lovely eighteen-inch strand has cream-colored pearls a quarter inch in diameter with hand-tied knots between each bead and a jewel clasp in the back. Today Doris still has them in her collection in Vineyard Haven.

According to the 1950 Gazette interview, Bodman stopped producing the profitable pearls after foreign manufacturers had figured out the process and with lower labor costs were able to mass-produce and sell them more cheaply. Bodman said, “The foreign pearls were inferior to Priscilla Pearls, but they sold in great quantity.” It soon became evident he could no longer make a profit, and he gave up the pearl business in 1938. Bodman had other business ventures, though he continued to make small amounts of pearl essence off-Island. He said, “It was more for old time’s sake than anything else.”

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