Pearl | Gemopedia


Pearls are the only gems that are grown inside living creatures, so rather than being mined like other gems, pearls are farmed and harvested. Pearls have been harvested from mollusks for thousands of years, either by chance or, more recently, purposely through culturing. From the start of mankind's love affair with them, pearls have been symbolic of class, purity, refinement, and wealth, but modern designs with fashionable new pearl shapes and colors are helping pearls appeal to a broader audience. They truly are not just your grandmother's pearls anymore. Read more about pearls.


When wearing pearls, avoid extreme heat, perfume, hairspray, cosmetics, and household chemicals. It's best to wait awhile after appplying your beauty products (lotions, perfumes, hairspray) before putting on your pearls. Pearls should not be stored in dry, air-tight containers like safe-deposit boxes. Steam and ultrasonic cleaners should also be avoided. Pearl strands should be restrung yearly or every other year, depending on how often they are worn. The best way to clean pearls is to wipe them off with a soft cloth after each wearing to remove any residues that might damage their luster. Use mild soapy water for a more thorough washing once in awhile, and always make sure the string is completely dry before wearing your pearl strand again.


While the color of most gemstones is known as bodycolor, pearl colors are described in three parts: overtone, orient, and bodycolor (its basic hue). Pearl bodycolors include white, black, and every pastel shade in between, including pink, peach, silver, cream, and gold, as well as dark and light purples, greenish blues, and browns, depending on the kind of mollusk that creates them. South Sea pearls are white, golden, or silver; Tahitian pearls are usually dark shades of gray, black, purple, or green, and sometimes white or silver; and Akoya pearls are white or cream. Freshwater pearls can grow in light tones of virtually any color. Any translucent colors that appear to float over the main color (usually rose, green, or blue) are known as overtone; and the iridescent shimmer that creates a rainbow on a pearl's surface is known as orient. Freshwater pearls are most likely to exhibit orient.










While some folks may believe there is no such thing as an ugly pearl, the jewelry industry grades pearls with a variety of factors, many of which are unique to pearls and unlike the value factors for other colored gems. The Gemological Institute of America (GIA) grades pearls based on their seven pearl value factors: size, shape, color, luster, surface quality, nacre quality, and matching. Luster, or the light reflecting from a pearl's surface, is the most important factor of a pearl's value and beauty. Surface quality refers to the presence or absence of irregularities or blemishes and their size, number, location, and type. Nacre quality refers to the thickness and quality of nacre layering; if it's too thin, the pearl's nucleus will be visible, and poorly layered nacre can create a chalky appearance.

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Name Origin and Meaning

Just as the original discovery of pearls is unknown, the origin of the name is also uncertain. The word "pearl" may derive from the Latin perna, a type of shell, or sphaerula, meaning "spherical." The names of various types of pearls are modified by a word that connotes where they are cultured (South Seas) or the type of oyster that grows them (Akoya), with one exception being keshi pearls. The word "keshi" is Japanese for "poppyseed," so named because of their generally small size.

Discovery and History

The first pearl discovery is an ancient mystery, though it was likely accidental and by a fisherman who was opening oysters or mussels for food. Freshwater pearling has been known in China since 1000 B.C., and while the Chinese were culturing blister pearls as far back as the 14th century, whole cultured pearls have only been available since the 1920s.

Natural pearls have been harvested for hundreds and maybe even thousands of years. A natural pearl occurs only once in 15,000 mollusks. In addition to oysters (saltwater) and mussels (freshwater), other creatures occasionally produce pearls, like the very rare and expensive pale orange Melo Melo pearls from marine snails and beautiful pink conch pearls with unusual flame patterns. Other pearls include recently discovered non-nacreous brownish-purple scallop pearls and distinctively blue-green iridescent abalone pearls.

Pearl Phenomenon: Orient
The layers of nacre that form a pearl contain tiny light-reflecting crystals. When there are enough layers of crystals and they align in a certain way, the reflected light will form a prismatic effect on the surface of the pearl, similar to the effect of oil on water. The beautiful rainbow-like result is known as "orient" and is found only on some pearls, especially dark freshwater pearls.

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While most gemstones come from minerals, which are inorganic materials, pearls belong to a small group of gemstones that come from organic sources, meaning they grow in a living thing--either cultured or naturally in mollusks. Nearly all of the world's cultured pearls are nucleated with beads made from freshwater mussel shells harvested in the southern United States, specifically Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Read more about pearl.

Pearl is the traditional birthstone for June.


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