Guide To Pearls
History Of Pearls
No other gem has captivated our fascination and admiration like the pearl. Diamonds may be forever, but pearls have been recognized as prized jewellery for centuries longer than any cut stone. Almost all other gemstones are formed by mineral deposits that must be mined, cut, and polished to reveal their sparkling beauty. Pearls, on the other hand, are beautiful as they are – straight out of the mollusk. High quality pearls have an intense, brilliant luster and shiny iridescence that emanates from within the gem. For these reasons, pearls have become a symbol of purity and natural beauty.
Pearls are natural wonders that have been treasured for centuries by cultures ancient and modern around the world. Greek mythology proclaimed pearls to be tears of joy shed by the goddess Aphrodite. Ancient Egyptians associated pearls with Isis, the goddess of healing and life.
Julius Caesar limited the wearing of pearl jewelry to the rulers of the Roman Empire during the first century B.C. In the glory days of the British Empire, only royalty were allowed to wear these lustrous gems. Until fairly recently, pearls were still worn exclusively by royalty and wealthy nobility, as they were far too expensive for anyone else to afford.
Tribal Indians, believed that pearls were tears of their gods. An Arab legend weaves a tale of dewdrops filled with moonlight that fell into the ocean and were swallowed by oysters, creating the precious pearls. The Gates of Heaven are made of pearl, according to the King James Bible. Pearls were rumored to cure hundreds of ailments. There are many more references to the pearl in works of great literature, and the lustrous jewels are often seen in famous paintings as jewellery, hair decorations and clothing adornments.
According to some historical accounts, Native Americans accepted strings of beads in exchange for the island of Manhattan. A few centuries later, in 1916, renowned French jeweler Jacques Cartier acquired land there for his first American store for the price of a strand of natural pearls. This long and storied past only adds to the appeal of the incomparable pearl, cherished today as a traditional wedding gift, a birthstone, and in jewelry that reflects taste and refinement.
Keshi Pearls are as close as we get to natural pearls from the farm environment. These very individual pearls are usually irregular in shape and are priced by weight as opposed to size. The international term keshi means ‘poppy seed’ in Japanese, and is a reference to the small size of these pearls, which are more than a few millimeters in diameter. Keshi pearls are popular because they are made of solid nacre and usually have a bright lustre. Their irregular shape can be a stimulus and challenge to jewellery designers and some of the most innovative jewellery is made using them.
Keshi pearls are a gorgeous by-product of the pearl culturing process. Not strictly considered “cultured pearls” by industry standards though because they are unintentional products, not actual nucleated pearls.
A keshi pearl is formed when the technician nucleates the pearl-bearing mollusk, happening with both saltwater pearl oysters and Freshwater pearl mussels. While the pearl is forming, a small piece of it breaks off within the body of the mollusk. The broken-off piece also irritates the mollusk into forming a pearl sac, and begin smoothing over the irritant with pearl nacre, creating an accidental pearl. Keshi pearls are solid-nacre, usually small in size, usually highly lustrous and come in every cultured pearl type: Akoya, Tahitian, Freshwater and South Sea.
Natural pearls are so rare to find in nature that most pearls sold today are cultured. To create a cultured pearl, a tiny bead is implanted into the oyster and gradually over time the oyster coats the bead in many layers of natural minerals and proteins. These layers are referred to as nacre (pronounced, Nay-Ker). It is the nacre that gives pearls their beautiful luster and color.
For nearly 100 years, akoya pearls grown off the coast of Japan have been the classic pearl of choice. When one pictures a round strand of white pearls, they are usually thinking of akoya. Although rare baroque shapes and natural colors like silver-blue and gold do exist, akoya pearls are best known for their perfectly round shape and sharp, reflective luster. While exceptions do exist, most akoya pearls produced today range in sizes from 4 to 10 mm. If you are looking for a classic strand of round, white pearls, you are probably looking for a strand of akoya pearls.
The most affordable pearls sold today, freshwater pearls are known for baroque shapes, white and pastel body colors and softer luster than akoya, exceptions arise in the case of rare metallics. With natural pastel colors and shapes that range from perfectly round to free-form baroque, freshwater pearls offer a widest range of options. Common sizes range from 5 mm to 12 mm, but recent advances have led to the development of round and baroque pearls as large as 20 mm.
If you are looking for an affordable piece or something more fashion-forward with unique combinations of colors and shapes, shop freshwater pearls.
Grown primarily in Australia the Philippines and Indonesia and ranging in color from white to gold, South Sea pearls are the largest saltwater pearls grown today. Because of their tremendous size, perfectly round South Sea pearls are quite rare. Other more common shapes are drops, baroques and ovals. All are considered very valuable. While South Sea pearls range in size from 8 mm to 18 mm, the most common sizes range from 10 mm to 14 mm.
If you looking for the statement piece of jewellery with large pearls, South Sea may be the way to go.
Tahitian pearls grown in French Polynesia are the only naturally dark pearls. Although often referred to as black, Tahitian pearls come in a rainbow of exotic colours. Round Tahitian pearls are quite rare but other fun shapes like drops, baroques and ovals are highly-sought and still considered very valuable. When measured perpendicular to the drill hole, most Tahitians range in size from 8 mm to 15 mm regardless of shape.
If you are looking for a naturally dark pearls that go well with almost any style, Tahitian pearls may be your best choice.
The general color of a pearl is also called the body color. Typical pearl colors are white, cream, yellow, pink, silver, or black. A pearl can also have a hint of secondary color, or overtone, which is seen when light reflects off the pearl surface. For example, a pearl strand may appear white, but when examined more closely, a pink may become apparent.
Pearls produce an intense, deep shine called. This effect is created when light reflects off the many layers of tiny calcium carbonate crystals that compose the pearl. This substance is called nacre. When selecting a pearl, consider that the larger the pearl, the more nacre it has, so it will also exhibit even more luster. Compare a 5mm Freshwater cultured pearl with a 10mm South Sea cultured pearl and the difference in the amount of nacre is obvious. The difference in luster is as clearly visible as the difference in the pearl sizes.
Shapes that are not spherical or even symmetrical are considered lower quality. Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls found in jewellery have a tendency to be the roundest, while Freshwater pearls can be oval or slightly off-round.
As a mollusk creates a pearl, the layers of nacre do not always adhere smoothly. Sometimes spots and bubbles can appear in the layering process. Pearls with the smoothest surfaces are the highest-quality, most sought-after pearls.
The size of the pearl greatly depends on the type of pearl. Freshwater pearls range in size from about 3.0-7.0mm, Akoya pearls range from about 6.0-8.5mm, and South Sea and Tahitian pearls can reach sizes as large as 13mm.
Selecting a Pearl
One of the most important considerations in selecting a piece of pearl jewelry is determining the type of pearl that is best suited to your budget and preference. There are two basic varieties of cultured pearls; freshwater and saltwater. Freshwater pearls are grown primarily in man-made lakes and reservoirs in China. Saltwater pearls, which include akoya, Tahitian and South Sea, are grown in bays, inlets and atolls in many places around the world. Saltwater pearls are considered more valuable than freshwater pearls, although rare and very high-quality freshwater pearls can be exceedingly valuable.
Grading a Pearl
Pearl grading is one of the most difficult aspects of pearl selection to understand. There is no officially recognized, standard system for grading pearls, except in the case of Tahitian pearls, where grading and export is controlled by the French Polynesian government. For that reason, it is important to understand the grading used by the company from which you purchase. A detailed explanation of luster, surface, shape and color is necessary to make an educated purchase decision.
When cared for properly, pearls can last a lifetime. The best way to care for pearls is to wear them often as the body’s natural oils keep pearls lustrous. However, it’s important to keep them away from household chemicals including perfume, makeup and hairspray. Chemicals found in these common products can dull the luster of your pearls. It is recommended that you put your pearls on last when getting ready and make them the first thing you take off when you come home. Before putting your pearls away, wipe them with a soft cloth and store them separate from other jewellery to avoid scratching their tender surfaces.
Pretty and pastel-hued, a conch pearl is a calcareous concretion produced by the Queen conch (pronounced, conk) mollusc, which is a large, edible sea snail. Most often pink in colour and normally oval shaped, the finest examples display a wave-like “flame” structure on their surface and have a creamy, porcelain-like appearance and unique shimmer.
Unlike pearls harvested from oysters, conch pearls, like other naturally occurring pearls, including the Melo and Giant Clam, are non-nacreous, which means they are not made of nacre. The substance that gives traditional pearls their iridescent lustre. Therefore, they are not technically a pearl and are not considered to be “true pearls”, although they are still referred to as such.
The majority of pearls today are cultivated by inserting an irritant into the mollusc and managing its progress, but a conch pearl is a completely natural phenomenon, with no intervention from man.
Harvested by teams of fishermen, a single, elusive conch pearl is found in every 10-15,000 shells, although less than 10% of these are gem quality. This, together with its unusual colour, makes the conch pearl extremely desirable. Found in large groups of up to 200, Queen conchs live among beds of sea grass in the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean, from the Yucatán all the way up to Bermuda.
Conch pearls are a beautiful by-product of the fishing industry in this region. Caught primarily for its meat, the Queen conch is eaten throughout the Caribbean and the US, raw in salads or cooked in local delicacies such as chowders and fritters.
Over fishing in many of the locations in which the Queen conch is found has forced all but three conch producing countries to ban fishing to protect populations, which it is predicted will not recover for decades. This means fewer conch pearls are coming to market. At one time, Queen conchs were also found off the coast of Florida, where it is now illegal to fish them.
Tridacna Clam Pearls/ Kima Pearl
Like nacreous pearls, tridacna pearls grow in mollusks. Specifically, they form in bivalve mollusks of the Tridacna genus of clams. This genus includes giant clams of enormous size. In fact, the largest pearls ever found from this genus are weighed in kilograms rather than carats.
However, these aren’t “true” pearls. Technically, tridacna pearls are calcareous concretions because they aren’t made of nacre. In a tridacna pearl, instead of forming in sheets, the mineral aragonite arranges itself radially. In a fine specimen, this results in an exciting flame structure that rolls across the gem.
Tridacna is a genus of large saltwater clams, marine bivalve molluscs in the subfamily Tridacninae.They inhabit shallow waters of coral reefs in warm seas of the Indo-Pacific region. All species of the Tridacnidae family are currently listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, they are therefore protected.
Some species, such as Tridacna gigas are more vulnerable than others and are among the most endangered clams. They require an official permit before export. As such, trade organizations actively have banned the use of Tridacna shell beads in jewellery or as beads for pearl cultivation in recent years.
The shell material of Tridacna clams consists of regularly and densely interwoven aragonite fibers. This partially results in fine ‘flame structures’ when viewed in reflected light. As a consequence, both natural pearls and polished shell pieces from Tridacna clams often show such flame structures on their surface.
They may also be the beautiful products of other mollusc species, misnamed as Tridacna clam pearls. Since there is currently no method for the species identification of such non-nacreous white pearls. This is very much in contrast to nacreous pearls which currently can be separated genetically, and also in some cases by UV-Vis-NIR reflectance and Raman spectroscopy.
Melo Melo pearls are natural, non-nacreous calcareous concretions or masses of mineral produced by the marine gastropod species known as Volutidae. A large sea snail dubbed melo melo. Like the animals that produce them, not an oyster or clam, Melo Melo pearls are orange to tan to brown in color and are found in the South China Sea and west to the Andaman Sea off the coast of Burma. The rarity and exclusivity of the Melo-Melo colours in the field of gem pearls enhances their value, as well their exotic allure.
Like conch pearls, Melo Melo pearls do not contain nacre; instead their composition is calcite and aragonite, giving them a fine glazed surface that sometimes bears flamelike patterns like a conch pearl. While they are formed in the same way as pearls, with layers of secretions building over foreign intruders, Melo Melo pearls can take decades to grow to significant size and shapes that are typically oval, round, or pebble like.
Scallop Pearls are formed in the bodies of the Atlantic Sea Scallop, whose Latin name is placpecten magellanicus, or in the Pacific “Lion’s Paw” or “Mano de Leon”. The scallop is recognized for its fluted shell whose ridges radiate out from the center like an opened fan, and can be coloured anywhere from dark brown to orange on the outside, and white to purple or brown on the inside.
A byproduct of the scalloping industry, the Pearls formed in the scallops’ bodies are found only rarely during the course of any one scallops fisherman’s fishing life. These Pearls are what are termed non-nacreous, as they are formed of calcium carbonate, without any of the attendant luster that stems from the typical nacre or pearly layered buildup that is seen on typical Pearls. The Scallop Pearl is the same in composition to other non-nacreous Pearl-bearing mollusks, like the conch or the melo melo, which is a sea snail.
The Scallop Pearl has its own mysterious beauty, though, in that it exhibits what is termed aventurescence – a type of reflection from tiny planes of color that twinkle beneath the Pearl’s surface. This gives it almost a three dimensional aspect, as it glimmers while being turned, and each tiny platelet in turn picks up and reflects any nearby light source. This effect is similar to that of the Conch Pearl, which has more of the appearance of flames.
Another specialty of the Scallop Pearl is that it is more often symmetrical either oval, round, drop or button-shaped. However, these naturally formed pearls are prone to the usual bumps that form in the haphazard calcium carbonate buildup.
The Scallop Pearl, as it is found in the wild-caught scallops, may be anywhere from a tiny seed to forty carats in size. Its color can range from a rare maroon, to more of a purple, to orange or pink.
As scallop fishermen bring in their catch, shuck or open them, and cut out the desirable muscle, they are likely to fling the shells overboard, not necessarily expecting to find a Pearl. Pearls occur so infrequently that they are not actively sought after, and as rarity increases, so does the value, especially for good-looking specimens. These are usually priced high for collectors, and can run to hundreds or thousands of dollars per carat.
The brilliant, shifting blue-green and blue-violet colors of abalone shell jewellery can be found in a million beach shops around the world, but true abalone pearls are very rare indeed. The abalone is a single-shelled, uni-valve saltwater mollusk, native to the Pacific Coast of California stretching up to Alaska, and can also be found in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Japan and East and Southeast Asian regions along with other cold-water regions.
There are approximately 56 different species of abalone, with 18 additional sub-species or derivatives belonging to the abalone Haliotidae family, and only one genus, haliotis. They include the white, red, black, green and pink varieties among many others.
The most common form of abalone jewellery found today is either jewellery made using the shell, or mabé abalone jewellery. Cultured mabé abalone jewellery is a fairly recent development starting around the 1980’s, and is centered in New Zealand, as the native abalone species, known as pâua is widely considered to be the colorful and desirable of all the abalone types.
Abalone farming has been around for a very long time, but the animals were traditionally harvested for their meat, with any pearls or commercial jewellery use considered a bonus; this was mainly due to the fact that abalone are hemophiliacs and the traditional process of pearl culturing would cause the abalone to bleed to death. The abalone pearl farmers have perfected the mabé culturing process so that beautiful abalone pearl jewellery is now available and affordable to everyone in a stunning array of colors that ranges from pure cobalt blue to intense emerald greens, rosy pinks and violets.
A small dome-shaped disc made of resin is glued to the inside of the abalone’s shell and left for a period of approximately 3 years while the animal covers the insert with iridescent nacre. At the end of the culturing process, the meat is harvested and the mabe pearls are cut out of the shell, with the remaining shell pieces sold for buttons, mother of pearl inlay or other commercial uses. Everything is used and nothing is ever wasted.
Wild, whole abalone pearls are an entirely different. Wild abalone pearls are extremely rare. A natural fine quality, decent sized pearl over 15mm can be found in one out of every five hundred thousand to nine hundred thousand abalone.
The reason that these pearls are so rare is that they require about 8 to 10 years to form as oppose to 24 to 36 months for regular cultured pearls to develop in pearl farms, as ideal circumstances are provided. Most abalone are fished by the time they’re only four or five years old and haven’t had sufficient time to create a true pearl. Furthermore, not every kind of Abalone is able to produce pearls, and even in those that do require a very specific combination of elements in order for the natural pearl to form. This includes everything down to the water temperature, the stress levels of the abalone and what the abalone has to eat throughout the 8 to 10 years of the pearl’s formation time.
Abalone pearls found in nature vary greatly in color and shape, and may either be solid or hollow. The shapes may be round, oval, flat baroques, or even giant horn-like shapes. The colours of the natural abalone pearls may be anything between royal blues and greens and magentas or silver pinks, golds, bronzes, silvers, crèmes, purples, and mystifying beautiful combinations. It is possible for a single abalone to produce several pearls of different shapes and colors.
Natural abalone pearls grow within thick nacreous layers which are joined together with organic conchiolin. They are formed in a way that is quite similar to the way other saltwater pearls are formed, except that the nacreous layers in abalone are thicker and more intensely coloured.
Abalone pearls may be used within all different kinds of accessories and pearl jewellery, and may even be matched for sets as long as they are painstakingly collected by the right jeweler. The price of abalone pearls can range anywhere from several hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, in the case of the rarest, highest quality pearls.