Pearl, Nature's Living Gemstone

Published 2/16/2011 at 12:00am
by Jerry Sisk, GG, Co-Founder, Jewelry Television®

You may wonder why I used the title "Nature's Living Gemstone." I did so for a number of reasons. While most gemstones come from minerals, which are inorganic materials, pearls belong to a very select group of gemstones that come from organic sources. Organic gemstones are created by or formed from living organisms. Pearls, which have been highly prized for thousands of years, are one of nature's greatest gifts to mankind. Without the efforts of living organisms, pearls would not exist.

When most people think of pearls, they envision oysters. However, pearls may come from a variety of sources, including mussels, conchs, and even snails. Pearl formation is totally dependent on the efforts of its host.

Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

Pearls are generally divided into two classifications--freshwater and saltwater. Although natural pearls do exist, they are extremely rare and have been eclipsed by cultured pearls.

In the strictest sense, the term pearl should refer only to those formed by nature's effort. However, the proliferation of cultured pearls has changed that perspective for the general public. Nowadays when consumers discuss their jewelry, they are talking about cultured pearls. Most lovers will never have the opportunity to see or hold a genuine pearl. And even if they do, they will find the price prohibitive.

While Japan was the mainstay of cultured pearls for many decades, China has since eclipsed Japan and is now one of the world's largest producers of both saltwater and freshwater pearls.

How Is A Pearl Formed?

What's the difference between a natural and cultured pearl? In reality, they both form under similar conditions. The only distinction is that man has intervened to "jump start" the process. By systematically introducing an irritant, man stimulates the mollusk to form its treasure, the first step in creating a cultured pearl.

The irritant, incidentally, may simply be a piece of mantle (tissue from the inner surface of the shell) or a piece of the mantle and a round bead. Most freshwater pearls require only a piece of the mantle, while some saltwater varieties, such as the famous Akoya pearl, use both mantle tissue and a rounded bead formed from the shell of freshwater mussels.

Once the irritant is introduced, the oyster or mussel begins the process of coating the intruder with layers of nacre (NAY-kur), a material that is secreted from special cells in the mantle. Nacre itself is a composite of two layers of material: aragonite (a form of calcium carbonate) and conchiolin (a substance that binds everything together). The color of the mantle tissue will also play a vital role in the final color of the pearl.

Pearl Grading and Value

Many factors influence the value and beauty of pearls. Size, color, overtones, nacre thickness, blemishes, and shape are of major importance when discussing and evaluating pearls. Generally, freshwater pearls cost less than saltwater varieties since multiple irritants may be implanted.

Come visit Jewelry Television® to experience the splendor and beauty of one of nature's most precious gifts to man. You may have your choice of pearls mounted in gold, platinum, or silver. And if you are the creative type, you may want to consider buying a loose pearl or two to design your own special piece.

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