A guide to pearls

Throughout history, pearls have symbolised wealth, power, religion, and influence, and they are particularly notable because there is no other gem that grows inside a living creature.

Basic lessons in pearls

Pearls are formed as a result of a foreign body entering the oyster or mollusc. It protects itself by covering the foreign body (irritant) with cells which then form around the irritant and slowly (layer by layer) cover the foreign body with layers of nacre. This forms the pearl.

A natural pearl does this all on its own and is a remarkable miracle of nature. Natural pearls are very rare now and command high prices. Cultured pearls are formed the same way, the big difference being that the “foreign body” (bead nucleus and mantle tissue or just mantle tissue) is deliberately inserted by man into the mollusc. The pearl is then formed in exactly the same way as a natural pearl.

Obviously if you sell different types of cultured pearls it’s good to know some of the differences between them over and above the obvious colour difference!

The four main types of cultured pearls

Freshwater Cultured Pearls – A freshwater shell can produce dozens of pearls (even up to 50!). They are the most common type of pearl. Freshwater cultured pearls occur in a wide variety of colours and shapes. Whilst white and cream are the most common colours for cultured pearls, other popular colours are black (peacock colour) and pastel pink. They are mainly commercially produced in pearl farms in China and Japan.

Akoya Pearls (saltwater) – Kokichi Mikimoto was the first to develop modern techniques to culture pearls in Japan by inserting a bead in the mantle tissue of the mollusc. The akoya pearl is the pearl with which Mikimoto started pearl cultivation. These pearls are renowned for their brilliant lustre and are the akoya oyster is the smallest pearl producing oyster in the world. They are available in sizes from 3-10 mm.

Tahitian Pearls – Pearls are grown in the black lipped mollusc. But only those grown in French Polynesian are officially Tahitian pearls. Tahitian pearls come in a variety of different dark colours from green to grey and display beautiful peacock coloured overtones. These pearls are on average between 8-13mm in size and shapes include round, baroque, teardrop and semi-round.

South Sea Pearls – South Sea pearls are the rarest and largest of all pearl types. They can take up to four years to grow. The lustre is the “soul” of the pearl, an inner glow that gives the pearl its luminescence (Atlas Pearls). They come in colours from ice white, sparkling silver to an amazing deep gold. South sea pearls range in size from 8 to 20mm, with the average being 12mm. They are highly prized gem with a hefty price tag. White South Sea pearls are cultured in Australia and golden South Sea Pearls are produced primarily in the Philippines and Indonesia.

When comparing different types of cultured pearls, it’s also worth knowing some of the factors that affect the value of a pearl.

Lustre – The greater the lustre of the pearl, the more valuable it is. The highest lustre is often metallic like. For many, lustre is the most important value factor. The finest pearls are highly reflective.

Shape – The more round the more valuable (all other value factors being equal).

Size – The larger the pearl, the more valuable it is. However, you need to take into account the other factors affecting the value of the pearl, for example the shape. Surface – The fewer blemishes the better. Some surface imperfections actually add to the beauty and uniqueness of a pearl.

Colour – There are two parts to the colour; the body colour is the primary colour (for example white) and the overtone of the pearl colour (for example silver overtone). Cultured freshwater pearls come in an array of colours. Colour generally does not affect the value of a pearl (with the exception of rare or natural pearls).

Basic Pearl Care

Pearls do not like soaps, perfumes, hairspray and detergents. Clean them immediately if they come into contact with any detergent. They are best stored in a soft bag and lay them out flat if possible to avoid scratching. They should be restrung every year or so to prolong their life and prevent them breaking.

Clean your pearls with a soft damp cloth (if possible after each time you wear them). Wear your pearls often as they don’t like to be neglected.


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