Modified: April 2011
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 have been highly prized for thousands of years and 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.
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 pearl 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.
In recent years, South Sea and Tahitian pearls have become major players in the pearl market. The mollusks responsible for producing these gems are extremely large in comparison with other varieties and provide an exciting range of colors with various overtones.
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.
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.
An affordable option for many is the blister or mabe pearl. These are semi-spherical pearls that are removed from the interior shell of the host. Mabe pearls are constructed from blister pearls, either natural or cultured, and have a mother-of-pearl backing. They are commonly used in earrings and pendants and are a very affordable alternative to round pearls.
Whatever your preference, pearls have a great deal to offer. While many individuals prize pearls that are rounder, some designers prefer the unique shapes found in the baroque and off-baroque creations.
The unusual forms that baroque pearls take make for an endless supply of truly stunning individual pieces. Many off-baroque pearls take tear-drop shaped forms that are perfect for pendants, pins, and earrings.
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.