Pearls – Part I Origins

Pearls – Part I Origins

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 sea 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 - usually enough to allow water to flow over it and feed off the tiny plankton carried by the tide. Also for spawning, but that exceeds this chat.

In the wild, mollusks produce pearls. These are called Natural Pearls. Due to pollution, population increase and over-fishing, there are almost no natural pearls produced in the wild today. After the early 1900’s we, humans destroyed the conditions for pearls to be created entirely by nature. For that reason, natural pearls are extremely expensive.


#5943 Natural Pearl Necklace. natural pearl necklace


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 nugget of nacre and this is the pearl. It may take any shape.


For centuries, people have managed and tried to induce mollusks to produce pearls at will. 13th century, Chinese put tiny objects, often little Buddhas 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.


#5205 Mikimoto Pearl Ring. Mikimoto pearl ring


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 1/2 years for a single pearl to develop. It takes a lot longer to grow to a desireable size.


The resulting pearls may be round, semi-round, asymmetrically- shaped - called baroque. They come in a wide variety of natural colors from silvery whites through shades of gold, to dark grey blue blacks.




#5342 Natural Pearl Ring. French ring natural pearls

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.

In a later post, we will discuss kinds of cultured pearls.

See also our posting on pearls as the birthstone for June.

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