Like ‘em or hate ‘em, the pearl is one of the most sought after and controversial gems in the world with a wild and wonderful history.
There are many wonderful tales involving the lust for this lustrous beauty of the sea. For generations and millennia, the pearl was the most sought-after jewel, adorning every visible portion of the anatomy of both men and women and being sewn into royal dresses and hairdo’s.
Pearls are different to all of the other components of our jewelry box. Unlike the other gems, they are organically produced by animals. Pearls are not mined like the other gems. They are farmed, much like chickens and lettuce.
Let’s start at the beginning.
A pearl is formed by a marine animal called a mollusk. When mollusks grow in fresh water, they are called mussels and they can also form pearls. Most pearl producing mollusks are found living between a hinged pair of shells. The animal can open or close the shell to allow water to flow over it and feed off the tiny plankton carried by the tide.
In the wild, mollusks produce pearls. These are called Natural Pearls. Due to pollution, population increase and over-fishing, there are no natural pearls produced in the wild today. For that reason, natural pearls, mostly dating to centuries gone by, are extremely expensive.
What is the pearl? Sometimes, due to an irritant, the mussel forms a little pearl sac between its outer skin and the shell. The pearl sac secretes layer upon layer of a substance called nacre. As the layers add up, they form a little bead of nacre and this is the pearl.
For centuries, people have tried to induce mollusks to produce pearls at will. 13th century Chinese put tiny objects, often little figures of Buddha, inside the shell of a mollusk and these would be covered with lustrous layers of nacre. It took years of trial and error and research before the first commercially viable cultured pearls were produced. Many of us know the story of Mikimoto and how he achieved this accomplishment early in the 20th century.
When the mollusk is a few years old, pearl farmers insert a tiny bit of tissue from a donor mollusk as well as a bead between the little animal and its shell, usually in the gonads (reproductive organs). This is a traumatic procedure, as can be imagined and many of the mollusks don’t survive the surgery. After that, great care is taken of the mollusks in the hope that they will produce pearls. The growth process can take up to 2 ½ years for single pearl to develop.
The resulting pearls may be round, semi-round, asymmetrically-shaped (called baroque). They come in a wide variety of natural colors ranging from silvery whites through shades of gold to dark grey and blue blacks. Today, the Chinese have managed to culture fresh-water pearls in almost every shade in the rainbow.
Cultured pearls are real pearls. There are many imitation or fake pearls made from a wide variety of materials ranging from glass to fish scales and mother of pearl.
Pearls are the birthstone for June.
Natural pearls are so rare and expensive that one would have to be actively looking for them to find them and they would all probably be found in antique jewelry. We can safely assume that most of the pearls we encounter, unless otherwise specified, are cultured.
What is the difference between a natural and a cultured pearl? First, remember that both are real pearls. The difference is that the cultured pearl forms around a bead introduced to the mollusk by human technology. If we take an x-ray, we can actually see the bead inside the pearl.
I took a large baroque pearl along to my last appointment with the dentist and asked him to x-ray it. Sure enough, the x-ray showed a clear round outline of a bead inside the pearl.
Kinds of Cultures Pearls:
- Akoya are what we first think of when we think of a pearl necklace. Our Moms wore these in the 1960’s. The best known are Mikimoto. Mikimoto has stopped producing pearls and now concentrates on their retail business, which includes all kinds of pearls.
- Fresh Water Pearls are farmed mainly in China and are of lesser value. While they were originally tiny and not round in shape, the Chinese have successfully grown them bigger and rounder. Today, top quality Chinese fresh water pearls can rival Akoyas.
- South Sea Culture Pearls are the biggest pearls of them all, having a wonderful soft luster. They are usually found in shades of white and gold. They can command extremely high prices, especially the really big, round pearls.
- Tahiti Black Pearls. Actually, these pearls are not produced in Tahiti and are not quite black. They are mainly produced in the French Polynesian islands and are a range of dark greyish colors. They are also large and considered the most exotic of all pearls.
What should you look for in a pearl??
There are a number of factors or qualities affecting beauty and value in pearls. Here is a short description of what to look for:
- Size: all other factors being equal, size is the most important of the qualities we look for in a pearl. Bigger is better.
- Color: Today, there is a wealth of colors to choose from. Make sure they are natural and not dyed. Sometimes, only a lab can tell the difference. Body-tone may be grey or white while the overtones may be pink, green or blue. Take your pick. Some colors are seen as more desirable than others. For example, the deep gold of South Sea Pearls and “Peacock” Tahitians are highly sought after and command top prices.
- Shape: In general, we desire a perfectly round pearl. That is exceedingly rare. Pearls can be round, off round, circles, or baroque in shape. Today, there is great demand for baroque shaped South Sea pearls.
- Luster: This is the shiny quality of a pearl. It may be metallic as in the Akoya, or it may be softer as in the South Sea pearl.
- Nacre: This is what makes up the pearl. Layer upon layer of nacre forms around the shell bead. The thicker the nacre, the better the quality of the pearl. If you look at the thread hole in your pearl, you might be able to see where the nacre ends and the bead starts.
- Surface: Since pearls are organically formed, it is natural that their surfaces, like ours are not entirely smooth and homogenous. Look for pitting, blemishes and other discolorations or uneven color, smoothness or bumps.
All cultured pearls are washed, dried and often buffed after harvesting. However, some pearls are further treated to enhance their appearance and make them more marketable. Altering the color by bleach or colored dye is amongst the techniques used to improved surface appearance and marketability of cultured pearls. In some cases, the treatment is obvious such as neon or radiant colors. Often, only a qualified laboratory can tell whether a pearl’s appearance is natural or artificially produced.
Pearls have played a part in legends, mythology and religion for centuries. There are those who attribute this wonder of nature with special qualities, whether malevolent, protective or beneficial. Today, many people consider the treatment of mollusks as cruel and unethical.