Pearl: June's Birthstone and Nature's Living Gemstone
Published: April 2011
Modified: August 2019
by Jerry Sisk, GG; Co-Founder, Jewelry Television®
The month of June holds the great honor of having the precious pearl as its birthstone. The magnificent pearl is more than just your average gemstone, it is a natural beauty that is shaped from organic sources. From the lovely Fresh Water pearls all the way to the mystic South Sea pearls; pearls come in all kinds of gorgeous styles, shapes and sizes. The pearl is nature's living gemstone and an all time classic that will forever make a statement with any ensemble. Dive into the intriguing history behind June's breathtaking birthstone, the pearl.
Why is Pearl Considered Nature's Living Gemstone?
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. Throughout history, it is the pearl that women have cherished most--for its radiance and soft sensuality, for its depth and mystery. From among their most magnificent and precious gems, it is with pearls that society's great ladies have wished to adorn themselves for the portraits that will immortalize them. A stroll through the portrait collections of museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, London's National Portrait Gallery, or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art vividly illustrate the singular and unrivaled reverence reserved for the pearl in every age. The pearls of yesterday were natural pearls, that is, an accident of nature, formed without human intervention, and among the rarest of all gems. Pearls were reserved for the world's richest and most powerful. No one else could ever hope to own natural pearls, but today pearls are more affordable thanks to the invention of culturing pearls. However, without the efforts of living organisms, pearls would not exist. When most people think of pearls, they envision oysters, but 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.
Natural vs. Cultured Pearls
In reality, they both form under similar conditions. Both natural and cultured pearls are produced by mollusks. There are many types of mollusks, including oysters, clams, scallops, and mussels, but only a few can produce beautiful pearls. Natural pearls are those that occur without the intervention of humans. These pearls are beautiful accidents of nature caused by an irritant that becomes lodged inside the mollusk. The mollusk coats the irritant with nacre to protect its sensitive tissue and thus creates a pearl. Natural pearls are extremely rare and unfortunately most have already been harvested. By the dawn of the 20th century, natural pearls were almost extinct. Thankfully, Kokichi Mikimoto introduced cultured pearls.The only distinction is that man has intervened to "jump start" the process by systematically introducing an irritant. When the irritant is introduced, man stimulates the mollusk to form its treasure, the first step in creating a cultured pearl. 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). Once reserved for only the wealthiest, today there is a beautiful pearl within the reach of every woman, whatever their budget or personal style.
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.
How are Natural and Cultured Pearls Created?
The pearls within these mollusks are formed as a result of defensive action taken when the mollusk is invaded by an intruder of some type. In the case of natural pearls, this is usually a small, often microscopic, sea parasite. In cultured pearls, it is a nucleus or piece of mantle tissue inserted by highly skilled technicians. No matter how the intruder is introduced, the mollusk isolates it by coating it in conchiolin (kon-kye'-oh-lin), a darkish, porous substance, over which calcium carbonate, the pearl substance we call nacre (nay' ker)--the same substance that forms the lustrous lining on the inside of the shell--is deposited. The nacre gradually envelopes the intruder, and crystallizes around it. Over time, layer upon layer gradually build up, thus forming the pearl.
Where natural pearls are concerned, it takes many years for a pearl to form, even a small pearl. In saltwater oysters, cultured pearls remain in the mollusk a relatively short time, typically from 6 months to 2 years, during which time the nucleus is covered by a pearl coating. The size of a cultured pearl is primarily a result of the size of the shell bead that was used as the nucleus rather than the length of time it has remained within the mollusk; the round shell nucleii used for cultured pearl production range from about 2 millimeters in diameter to over 16 millimeters. In freshwater natural pearls, the process is the same; in cultured Chinese freshwater pearls, the process may be started by inserting numerous pieces of tissue from a mollusk of the same type; where each piece of tissue is inserted into the pearl-producing mussel, a pearl will be produced, and in this type of production, the pearls are essentially all nacre (since there is not really a nucleus). The shape of the pearls resulting from this process is usually baroque, often an elongated shape similar to a rice krispie; these "rice krispies" can then be polished into round shapes and reinserted and used as a round, "all-nacre" nucleus, resulting in more or less round, "all-nacre" pearls. The Chinese are also using shell nuclei today, and experimenting with other substances for use as nuclei, such as "mud"!
Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls
Pearls are generally divided into two classifications--freshwater and saltwater. Saltwater pearls are usually found in certain types of oysters while freshwater pearls are found in certain species of mussels.
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.
Blister and Mabe Pearls
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.
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.
What is a Pearl and How do Natural Pearls Differ From Cultured Pearls?
When buying any nucleated cultured pearl, the thickness of the pearl coating over the nucleus is critically important; the longer the nucleus remains inside the mollusk the thicker the build-up of nacre, and thick nacre is needed in order to have a pearl that is beautiful and will retain its beauty and endure over the years. A thin nacre layer can chip and peel off.
In saltwater cultured pearl production, typically the oyster produces one or 2 pearls; in the early days of culturing, the oyster was sacrificed during the harvest period, but today the same oyster may be used several times; the second harvest often produces the finest pearl. In Chinese freshwater cultured pearl production (China is now the primary producer of freshwater pearls) the mussel used for culturing is much larger than the oysters used to produce the classic round, white, "Akoya" pearl (named after the oysters in Japan that were initially used for pearl culturing). The quantity of pearls produced by each mussel, and the number of times that the same mussel can be used to produce pearls, results in many more pearls than can be produced by any other mollusk. Because so many are produced, Chineses freshwater pearls lack the rarity of saltwater pearls and this is the primary reason they cost so much less that saltwater cultured pearls.
Before the age of cultured pearls, when divers risked their lives in the hope of finding a single pearl, with only one in 25,000 oysters yielding a beautiful pearl of any worth, entire oyster populations were completely wiped out by pearl-divers; this, combined with pollution following the discovery of oil in the middle east (where most natural pearls were found), resulted in natural pearls becoming virtually extinct by the beginning of the 20th century. Where cultured pearls are concerned, there is a steady supply of mollusks that are raised to produce pearls, and the same mollusk can often be used repeatedly to produce cultured pearls.
Cultured pearl production is arduous and expensive
Freshwater cultured pearl production is responsible for some of the most exciting developments in today's pearl world, and freshwater pearls are now among the most exotic, beautiful, and affordable. We've touched upon freshwater pearl production above, but techniques are closely guarded and ever-changing. The costliest pearls are saltwater pearls, and production techniques are well understood, so we will focus on saltwater pearls in the discussion below, but keep in mind that there are many overlaps in terms of labor and natural factors...
History of Cultured Pearl Production
At the end of the 19th century, an Australian named William Saville-Kent and three Japanese inventors: a biologist named Tokichi Nishikawa, a carpenter named Tatsuhei Mise, and the son of a noodle maker, Kokichi Mikimo, discovered techniques for culturing pearls. By 1920, Mikimoto was selling them around the world. Known as the father of the cultured pearl industry, Mikimoto quickly established Japan as the primary source of cultured pearls for almost a century.
Cultured Pearl Production
While techniques have changed and improved in most respects in the years since Mikimoto brought cultured pearls to the world, the basic techniques have changed little.
In saltwater cultured pearl production, the oysters that will be used for pearl cultivation are raised in protected farms. After about 2 years, the farmers bring them out of the water and hand-select the healthiest and most robust for pearl cultivation. The oysters are then transported in vats to a specially equipped room in which highly skilled technicians perform a very delicate surgical operation using a scalpel and specially designed tools. During this procedure, a small piece of freshly cut mantle tissue is inserted in the area of the gonad, alongside of which the shell nucleus is subsequently inserted. The shell nucleus is also an organic substance, usually a round, shell bead, shaped from the shell of certain types of molluscs (many of the nuclei are made from shells from the rivers and lakes of Tennessee because they're less brittle, much whiter, and more uniform in color than shells of other molluscs or from other localities).
Immediately after the implantation procedure, the oysters are placed in sacs and lowered back into the sea. After about 3 months, they are raised out of the water once again. Approximately 1/3 of the oysters will have died during this time, but the survivors will be checked and carefully cleaned by hand, then transferred back to the sea. This process if repeated periodically throughout the cultivation period. As time passes, successive layers of nacre build up to form the cultured pearl.
A fine pearl requires a cultivation period of 18 months to three years inside the oyster. Though the nucleus is round and smooth at the start, as the coating of nacre thickens, it can become misshapen or spotted. As a result, a short cultivation period results in a larger crop of rounder pearls with smoother surfaces, but the pearl coating will be thinner. If harvested too early, the pearly coating will be too thin to have any lustrous glow, and will require some type of artificial coating to create a lustrous surface, but this can eventually wear off leaving a chalky pearl in its place. More importantly, if it is very, very thin, it can chip and peel, revealing the shell nucleus, and eventually wear off entirely, leaving worthless shell beads. These pearls have a different look than fine pearls with thick nacre because they lack the intense glow that seems to come from the very core of the pearl. If you examine the pearls at each drill hole, with the help of a jewelers loupe (a hand-held 10x magnifying lens), you can usually see chipping of the nacre, where the nacre was too thin to withstand the drilling; in some cases, so much nacre has already chipped off that you can see a large area of the shell bead, now exposed because the very thin nacre covering has chipped off.
Pearls left within the oyster for a longer cultivation period will have thicker nacre, but when harvested there will be a yield of far fewer pearls with perfectly round shapes and spotless surfaces. This is why the finest round cultured pearls are so rare and costly.
Pearl producers have little control over the results of implantation; they can't control whether the oysters will accept or reject the nucleus; they can't control the quality of what each oyster produces each individual oyster determines the lustrousness, shape, color, surface smoothness, and so on; and they can't control or prevent natural disasters such as a deadly red tide that can kill an entire oyster population, weather that can alter water purity and temperature, or earthquakes, monsoons, and other acts of nature.
Despite research, advanced science and technology and relentless hard work, in the end it is the oyster and nature that determine whether or not there will be a pearl at all, and if so, whether or not it will be beautiful and valuable. When a pearl crop is harvested and the pearl's cleaned, sorted and graded, producers find only a very small percentage that will be classified as fine. Following each pearl harvest, producers offer their pearls at auction, with major buyers having been invited from around the world. From here they find their way to the world's major jewelers. As with diamonds and other gemstones, pearl prices do not vary much from country to country because they are largely based on what the major players have paid for each harvest.
In cultured saltwater pearls, size is determined primarily by the size of the nucleus and the size and age of the mollusk. A smaller variety of oyster, or one that is too young, will not tolerate a large nucleus and will either reject it or die. This is why the classic round, white pearl known as the "Akoya" (from Japan and now from China) are rarely over 9 millimeters, even in mature oysters, most akoyas are too small to accept a nucleus large enough to produce a 10-11 mm pearl. By comparison, the South Sea cultured pearl is grown in the Pinctada maxima variety of oyster, which grows to more than a foot across, so it can accommodate a very large nucleus. Larger pearls are produced by larger oysters and/or by inserting a larger nucleus; smaller pearls by implanting a smaller nucleus. So for every type of pearl, there are a variety of sizes produced at harvest time. There is little difference in the time required to produce a large cultured pearl and a smaller cultured pearl.
At first glance, this might suggest it's easy to get any size pearl the grower wishes, including large sizes, but this is not the case. As the size of the implanted nucleus increases, the greater the rejection rate by the oyster, so there are fewer pearls in larger sizes at harvest, and far fewer fine pearls because oysters can't tolerate larger nuclei as well as nuclei that are smaller. So fine quality cultured pearls in large sizes are rarer and costlier than small pearls. In cultured pearls, the larger the pearl, the thicker the nacre, and more perfectly formed and aligned the crystals in each layer, the more beautiful, rare, and costly the cultured pearl.
It is important to understand that there are no universally accepted standards for pearl grading. When experts use the term fine, it is understood that the nacre is at least 0.5 millimeters thick, the shape very symmetrical, the luster very nice, the surface free of unsightly blemishes, and that the color is beautiful. In white pearls, a very white color is rarer than the creamier tones, and will cost more. Those with a faint pink overtone are especially desirable in white pearls, while a greenish overtone will reduce value. In fancy colors, the deeper the color, the rarer and costlier; in naturally black cultured pearls, a green or blue overtone adds value. But whatever color you seek, the larger the pearl, the more difficult it is to have all these characteristics.
Pearls are often graded by retailers using an A,B,C scale, with AAA, AA or A being the top quality. But keep in mind that the AAA-quality at one store might be equivalent to the B or C quality at another store. To see quality differences in pearls, they must be compared side-by-side, against a neutral background color (flat white, light beige or light gray) under a diffused light source. This is rarely the way pearls are shown in most jewelry stores. Evenso, if you carry a piece of white tissue paper, on which you can lay the pearls, and you move away from the spotlight, you will be surprised at the differences you will be able to see.
Judging Pearl Quality
In general, pearl quality is judged in five areas that affect the value of pearls cultured and natural alike. Each factor influences their beauty, desirability, rarity and cost.
- Luster & Orient. This is what gives the pearl its luminescence, a character that sets pearls apart from all other gems. This is the first and most immediate visual indicator of the quality and thickness of the nacre, the "pearl" layers covering the shell nucleus. The richer or more intense the lustre, the finer the pearl. Luster is the luminous glow seen in fine pearls. It is associated with the formation and alignment of the crystalline layers of the pearl coating. The more intense the luster, the rarer and costlier the pearl; low-luster pearls are much less desirable, and less costly, because they have a chalky appearance. Orient refers to an iridescent play-of-color across a pearls surface, resulting from a prismatic effect created by light passing through the crystal layers of nacre. It is seen only in the finest pearls. Pearls with a combination of lustrousness and orient possess a unique beauty and character that is extremely rare. Such pearls are costlier than others and can cost much more than larger pearls that lack this combination, even if comparable in other ways.
- Size/weight. The larger the pearl, the rarer and more difficult it is to find perfection. Most natural pearls are sold by weight, in grains or carats (1 carat = 4 grains) but millimeter dimensions are also provided to indicate size. In cultured pearls, size is always indicated in millimeter dimensions.
- Shape. Round pearls are the rarest, but it is extremely rare to find a perfectly round natural pearl. Symmetrical shapes such as oval, drop or pear-shape, acorn, and button are less rare than round, but can still be very rare and costly, especially in matched pairs. Asymmetrical shapes are often referred to as baroque. They can be quite whimsical and desirable, but these are less rare and costly than round or symmetrical shapes.
- Color. The whiter the body color, the rarer the pearl. Today we also have a wide range of pastel colored cultured pearls from which to choose. Pearls also have overtones of other colors such as pink or green. In white pearls, pink overtones add value while green overtones reduce value. In black pearls, green or blue overtones add value; in gray pearls, pink or lavender overtones are sought. Evenness and uniformity of color is important. When buying a fancy-color pearl, be sure to ask whether or not the color is natural since this will dramatically affect cost. Pearls can be dyed or treated in other ways to enhance color; there is nothing wrong with buying treated-color pearls as long as you know the color is treated and pay an appropriate price.
- Surface Perfection. The presence of surface blemishes such as tiny pits, blisters, or cracks, their location in terms of visibility, and whether or not they affect durability is important in valuing any pearl. While a flawless surface is extremely rare, pearls with blemishes that are small and barely noticeable or located where visibility is reduced or can be concealed by a setting, are more desirable than those with visible or unsightly surface blemishes, and they will cost more than those with more visible blemishes. In addition to the five factors above, in jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets--in any piece of jewelry using multiple pearls--the matching of the pearls in terms of each of these factors is an important factor affecting cost.
Keep in mind, however, that each of these quality factors can be artificially altered to appear better than they are and "bargains" may not be what they appear to be. Let me stress that there is nothing wrong with buying pearls that have been treated as long as you know, and as long as you are paying an appropriate price. However, where treated pearls are concerned, especially those with treatments to enhance the surface lustrousness or color, their appearance may change in the future. For these reasons, it is especially important when buying "fine" pearls to make sure you are buying from a reliable source that has knowledgeable buyers and will stand behind its product.
All Cultured Pearls Are Not The Same
Not all cultured pearls are the same and they should not be grouped all together as they often are. Different types of pearls are produced by different types of mollusks. The rarest and most prized cultured pearls are produced by saltwater oysters belonging to the Pinctada genus: Pinctada maxima, which produces magnificent large pearls in an array of colors including white, cream, and fancy colors such as yellow and gold; Pinctada fucata (also known as the Akoya or the Pinctada martensii), which produces the smaller classic round white pearl; and Pinctada margaritifera, which produces the "dark" pearls, those in the gray, bronze and black hues. In addition to different species of oysters producing different types of pearls, pearls produced by the same oyster species can differ from one geographic location to another because of differences in conditions such as water temperature and nutrients. Different types of pearls and pearls from particular geographic locations have their own distinctive characteristics, their own distinctive colors, shapes, radiance and overall appeal; some are more beautiful, rare and highly prized than others, as with any other gem.
Let's take a moment to compare the pearl to ruby and sapphire. Ruby and sapphire are not considered the same thing, yet that's exactly what they are; ruby is the red variety of the mineral corundum and sapphire is the blue variety of the same mineral, corundum. They really differ only in color and rarity, factors determined by the specific set of conditions under which they formed; since nature produced the particular set of conditions required to produce ruby less frequently, ruby is much rarer. Its rich, desirable color, combined with its rarity, results in its being more highly prized and much more valuable than blue sapphire.
So it is with pearls; all true pearls are composed of "nacre," but the large, radiant white pearl created by the oyster Pinctada maxima, for example, is created by a different set of conditions--a different oyster, a different geographic environment--than smaller white pearls, or large black pearls, and so on. And just as ruby is rarer and more highly prized than sapphire, certain types of pearls, such as South Sea cultured pearls, are rarer and more highly prized than other pearl varieties.
Pearls: A World Of Choice
More countries are now culturing pearls, and as a result of the differing water conditions and the mollusks used, we are now finding much greater variety in terms of size, shape, and perhaps most important of all, color. Color is now the rage, with rich golden pearls, multi-color strands, and "chocolate" pearls topping "wish lists." One of the most exciting developments in terms of color is the production of cultured pearls in Fiji. Here we are now seeing an increasing production of beautiful, intensely lustrous pearls occurring in an array of colors not seen elsewhere, in impressive sizes averaging 10.5 - 11.5 millimeters in diameter, with some reaching as large as 18 millimeters. Mexico's production of round cultured pearls has increased significantly, in a range of exotic colors (from the "rainbow-lipped oyster, Pteria sterna, a mollusk previously believed incapable of producing cultured pearls!). While still not widely available, as production of round pearls continues to increase in number and quality; this is a pearl to watch.
Thailand and Vietnam are also finding success in round pearl culturing, and Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand have increased production. The focus in the Philippines remains on creating sensual creamy to deep gold colors, and demand for natural blackcolor cultured pearls from French Polynesia and the Cook Islands continues to rise. Natural black cultured pearls have also benefited from stricter controls, a reduction in the use of treatments, and the production of higher quality pearls than we've seen in the past decade, which has resulted in much stronger prices, reversing the ever-weakening prices that reflected the flooding of the market with low-quality, treated pearls in the 1990s and early 2000s.
For those who love cultured abalone mabé pearls, those from New Zealand are readily available and very popular on the fashion scene because of their affordable prices and exotic colors. Unfortunately, those from the northwest coast of California are no longer available.
China continues to bring beautiful freshwater cultured pearls to the pearl scene, in ever new shapes -- such as "petal" pearls -- in increasingly large sizes, and in a palette of colors, albeit many colors are the result of some type of treatment. China has become a major force in freshwater pearl culturing. Having begun by making small, white, near-round all-nacre pearls that were available in sizes up to 6 millimeters, today China is producing round cultured freshwater pearls reaching 15 millimeters in size. Some Chinese freshwater pearls are all-nacre having no nucleus, but nucleated freshwater pearls are also being produced in China now. These lovely pearls, ranging in color from white to cream to lovely pastel shades of pink and lavender, are going to fill an important need in the market for large cultured pearls at a much more affordable price than the much rarer and expensive South Sea cultured pearl, which remains the queen of cultured pearls. Today China is also a significant producer of saltwater cultured pearls, including akoya pearls (the classic round, white Japanese pearl) and South Sea cultured pearl varieties. Chinese pearls, however, are also often treated to change or improve color and lustrousness.
The Right Cultured Pearl For You
The Akoya Pearl
The Akoya Pearl is the classic, round, white pearl cultivated in saltwater oysters primarily in Japan and China using the "akoya oyster" (also known as the Pinctada martensii or fucata). The average size is 6 - 8 millimeters in diameter, but they can reach 10+ millimeters; prices jump with each ½ millimeter size increase! Asking about nacre thickness is especially important; we are seeing an increasing number of akoyas prematurely harvested with overly thin nacre. Nacre thickness is generally described as very thick, thick, medium, thin and very thin and I do not advise buying cultured pearls with thin or very thin nacre.
Japanese akoyas normally have thicker nacre than Chinese akoyas. In the finest, lustrousness can be the highest of any cultured pearl, but poor quality akoyas have very low luster and look chalky. Typical colors range from white to cream to yellow; white with a pinkish overtone is the rarest. Akoya pearl shapes are normally rounder and surfaces less spotted than South Sea varieties.
South Sea Pearls
South Sea cultured pearls are produced by the Pinctada maxima oyster, many of which reach a foot in diameter. There are two varieties, readily identifiable by the unique color at the edge of the shells interior lining: the silver-lipped Pinctada (with its silvery white lining) produces the large, silvery white pearls associated with royalty, and the golden-lipped (with its golden lining), producing creamy to deep golden pearls. Cultivated throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans, the finest South Sea pearls primarily from Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Burma once produced the finest South Sea pearls but the quality of most of the pearls now produced in Burma has declined and is often inferior to those now produced elsewhere. Naturally black pearls often called Tahitian pearls are also usually grouped with South Sea pearls although they are grown by a different variety of oyster.
South Sea pearls average 13 millimeters in diameter; pearls over 16 millimeters are considered very large, and over 18 millimeters, extremely rare. Colors include pink-white, silver-white, gray-white, cream and fancy colors such as yellow and gold and black. Oysters produce nacre at a much faster rate in the warmer waters of the South Pacific and producers adhere to a much longer cultivation period, resulting in pearls with exceptionally thick nacre. This creates a wonderful, deep lustrousness, and satiny character. Fine, large strands can easily exceed $400,000. A spectacular South Sea cultured pearl necklace recently sold for $800,000; it took over five years for Australian pearl producer Kailis to acquire enough fine, large, matching pearls to assemble it!
Exceptionally thick nacre results in the most lustrous and sensual pearls, but it also reduces the number of flawless surfaces and perfectly round shapes; these are extremely rare in South Sea pearl varieties. As a result, various treatments are being used increasingly to improve surface appearance and shape; and with such thick nacre, pearls can be polished to remove surface blemishes and improve both shape and lustrousness; however, in such cases the luster diminishes over time. Untreated South Sea pearls are becoming increasingly rare. Large, shimmering South Sea pearl strands selling for under $100,000 are usually treated.
There is nothing wrong with treated pearls. The popular chocolate pearls that recently entered the market are all treated color but treated pearls are often sold without disclosure, at inflated prices. When purchasing especially golden or black pearls, ask explicitly whether or not the color is natural, and in all cases, ask about treatments.
White South Sea Cultured Pearls
Australia was the pioneer in using Pinctada maxima oysters to produce white South Sea pearls, and many connoisseurs consider theirs the finest pearls produced today. They average 14 millimeters, but some have exceeded 20 millimeters in diameter! Shapes include symmetrical and asymmetrical baroques (shapes other than round) as well as round, but perfectly round pearls are very rare and, especially in large sizes.
Golden South Sea Cultured Pearls
The leading producers of golden pearls are the Philippines and Indonesia. Color ranges from pale champagne to yellow to deep gold, and sizes from as small as 8 millimeters up to 16; those over 16 millimeters are very rare. They occur in all shapes, but perfectly round shapes are very rare. Moderate spotting on surfaces is also to be expected.
Natural-Color Black Tahitian Cultured Pearls
Often called Tahitian pearls, these exotically colored black pearls were first cultivated throughout French Polynesia; Tahiti serves as a distribution center for the area, which covers thousands of miles. The Cook Islands are also another important source, and other countries such as Vietnam are venturing into black pearl production. These pearls are produced by Pinctada margaritifera, known as the black-lipped oyster (from the color of its shell lining). Another large oyster variety reaching a foot or more in size, its pearls are usually dark in color, ranging from bronze to light gray to charcoal to almost black, with wonderful overtones of green, blue or pink playing across their dark surfaces. The average size is 13 millimeters, but in very rare cases have been known to exceed 20 millimeters! Lustrousess ranges from velvety to exceptionally intense. Moderately spotted surfaces are normal. Perfectly round or symmetrical shapes are rare, but interesting baroque shapes are very popular, particularly asymmetrical or whimsical shapes.
In recent years, efforts to produce more pearls in a shorter time resulted in declining quality. This led to the use of excessive treatments and plummeting prices caused by the flood of inferior pearls into the market. Stricter controls are now in place, quality is improving and prices are strengthening.
Ringed or Circlé Pearls
A concentric ring encircling a pearl is a surface characteristic that can appear on any variety. A single ring is considered a surface blemish, but the presence of numerous concentric rings can create a very distinctive pearl especially those from the South Pacific in shades of white, gray to black, and aubergine. Rings usually occur in off-round or baroque shapes and are much less rare and expensive than round pearls or symmetrical baroque shapes, but they are very popular with avante-garde jewelry designers.
These have made a splash in the fashion world because of their warm earth tones ranging from a yummy dark brown to lighter brown, copper, bronze and honey. But beware: the desirable original chocolate pearls were created by removing color from very black pearls to lighten them and then stabilizing the resulting color. Sizes range from 9 to approximately 17 millimeters, but those over 15 millimeters are rare. Lustrousness ranges from satiny to ball-bearing like. The basic body color is also complimented by lovely overtones of other colors as with other Tahitian pearls.
Dyed chocolate pearls are also in the market. These typically have a much flatter appearance, may change color over time, and should sell for much less. Fortunately, you can develop an eye. If the color seems too uniform devoid of overtones of other colors and the pearls have an overall flat character, they are probably dyed.
Pastel Colors From Fiji
In Fiji, producers are using the same oyster used in French Polynesia and the Cook Islands, but with startlingly different results! Here, in the pristine water surrounding the atoll off the Fiji islands, the pearls produced occur in luminous shades of silver, soft yellow to vivid gold, pink to aubergine, pastel green and blue to deep green, bronze and brown. Strong peacock shades are typical and striking green overtones are often seen in the golden colors. A long cultivation period results in pearls with very thick nacre, so perfectly round pearls, symmetrical shapes, and flawless surfaces are extremely rare; minor spotting is characteristic but deep white blemishes lower the value. Baroque and ringed pearls are readily available. Fiji is producing some of the most beautiful pearls produced anywhere today, and are guaranteed not to be dyed, bleached, or color-enhanced.
Rainbow Colors From Mexico's Sea of Cortez
Pearl culturing in Mexico's Sea of Cortez (near Guaymas) is also a very bright spot, producing some of the world's most beautiful cultured pearls. Produced by the rainbow-lipped Pteria sterna, the pearls occur in unusual colors from deep iridescent purple, rose, silvery blue, pink, and occasionally, copper, white and gold, with a striking surface iridescence. Nacre is extremely thick, resulting in intense luster on the finest. Most are semi-baroque and ringed pearls are often seen; minimal surface spotting is common. Sizes range from 5 to 14 millimeters, but round pearls over 8 millimeters are rare. No chemical processing or treatments of any type are used. Rainbow strands of pearls of assorted colors in baroque shapes are in demand (round strands are very rare) and darker pearls make handsome cufflinks and mens dress sets.
Also called chance pearls, these are-like natural pearls-all nacre, but accidentally produced. Saltwater oysters sometimes reject their bead implant, but particles of the accompanying mantle tissue remain and stimulate the production of nacre. Voila! The wonderful keshi. While some people think they should be considered natural pearls, they are a by-product of the culturing process and this is not technically correct.
Japanese keshi are very small, but those of greatest interest are the larger South Sea variety, from 8-10 millimeters and up. They can be found in virtually any shape including round, but most are asymmetrical baroque shapes. They also occur in virtually all shades. One of the most striking characteristics of South Sea keshi is their very intense luster and iridescence, far greater than seen in even the finest cultured pearls.
A mabé pearls is a dome-shaped pearl available in a variety of colors and shapes, the most common being white in color and round or pear-shaped. These pearls are produced very inexpensively, but they provide a very large, attractive look at an affordable price compared to other pearls of comparable size. They are more fragile than other pearls and should be worn and handled with care.
The mabe pearl is an assembled pearl produced by placing a hemisphere-shaped nucleus, usually a piece of plastic, against the side of the shell interior. The oyster then produces a nacre coating over the plastic. The resulting pearl is cut from the shell, and the plastic removed (since the nacre won't adhere to plastic). The remaining hollow nacre "blister" is then filled with epoxy, following which mother-of- pearl is attached to the back. Luster can range from very low to high; surfaces are usually cleaner than other pearls. Surface appearance is often enhanced by artificial treatment.
Mabe pearls are produced in many countries and quality differences abound. It is especially important when selecting mabe pearls to select pearls with a thick nacre coating to avoid premature chipping, peeling or cracking. The longevity of mabe pearls is usually much less than other pearls and they have little intrinsic value.
Seed pearls are very tiny, round, usually natural pearls or tiny keshi, usually under two millimeters in size. They are rare today, but often seen in antique jewelry. They are sometimes cut in half to create a larger supply for a particular piece of jewelry or to remove a blemish or misshapen side; these are called "half-pearls" and they are much less expensive than full seed pearls. Seed pearls can be produced by both freshwater and saltwater molluscs. They occur in a variety of qualities. Longevity is excellent and intrinsic value is good, although they are normally too few, and too small to have any great value.
American Freshwater Cultured Pearls
American freshwater cultured pearls are a different product from Chinese freshwater pearls. Like saltwater cultured pearl, production techniques require the insertion of a shell nucleus. Quality is very fine, but far fewer pearls are produced and costs are higher than other freshwater pearls. They have a totally different appearance from all other cultivated pearls and the nacre is much thicker than most saltwater pearls cultured in Japan and China. Luster is intense with rich orient. Colors include white, silver, gray, cream, and fancy colors such as pink, peach, and lavender. Round shapes are not yet available, but coin, stick, and navette shapes are available. They also produce an interesting pearl called the domé.® It resembles a mabé pearl, but they are not hollow, have thick nacre, and the pearl remains embedded within a portion of the shell that can be cut into a variety of shapes that are popular with designers. Sizes can be quite large, some fancy shapes reaching 10x40 millimeters. No artificial enhancements are used. The longevity of these pearls is excellent.
How To Care For Pearls
Proper care is required to protect the beauty of fine pearls. The compact crystalline structure of pearls makes them very durable, but they are soft and this cannot be ignored.
- Store pearls carefully, separated from other jewelry to prevent scratching the pearl's surface on sharp metal edges or prongs, or against harder stones. Never toss pearls carelessly into a purse or travel case. For temporary storage you can use a plastic bag with a seal to protect them, but do not store pearls in an airtight environment for any extended period of time because pearls need moisture.
- Avoid leaving your pearls in a window unless protected from the sun by an awning. Intense sunlight shining through a window--and overly hot nights as well--can become hot enough to crack a pearl; sunlight also makes the air too dry.
- Avoid contact with various chemicals and household cleaners. These include vinegar, ammonia, and chlorine bleach of any kind; inks; hairspray, perfumes, eau de toilette, and cosmetics. Keep in mind that many commercial jewelry cleaners contain ammonia, so they should be avoided for pearls. Also, many household cleaners contain ammonia, such as windex, so avoid wearing your pearl jewelry while cleaning. Put on pearls AFTER putting on hairspray, perfumes and cosmetics. These substances will spot or disintegrate the pearl's surface. In strands or necklaces, they can also cause dirt and abrasive substances (found in cosmetics) to cling to the string; if not removed these abrasive particles can cause the pearl to wear at the drill hole and also to weaken the string, making it more susceptible to breaking.
- Wipe gently with a warm, damp towel before putting pearls away. This will remove body oils and perspiration that can cause discoloration or spotting, as well as other damaging substances that may accidentally have gotten on them (such as vinegar or lemon juice that could accidentally have splattered onto your pearls while eating).
- Periodic washing is recommended. While you shouldn't have to wash pearls often if you wipe them off before putting them away, they will need to be washed whenever the knots between the pearls appear dirty. Place some mild liquid soap in a bowl with warm water and place your pearls in this sudsy solution. Wash them gently with a soft cloth. You may use a soft brush around the knots to better remove gritty dirt. After washing, the pearls should be rinsed in clean water and then wrapped in a thin, clean, damp cotton towel until the towel is dry (wet the towel and wring it out). When the towel is dry, the pearls will be dry, and you will avoid any risk to them. Never use jewelry cleaners containing ammonia, or any household cleaner containing ammonia, clorox bleach, or abrasives to clean pearls or pearl jewelry.
- Use clear fingernail polish remover (acetone) to remove gummy or caked-on dirt. Acetone based fingernail polish remover will remove heavy dirt. Acetone, unlike ammonia and vinegar, will not hurt pearls. Do not leave pearl rings or earrings, or any mounted pearl jewelry, immersed in acetone for extended periods because it can weaken any glue that might have been used to secure the pearl in the setting.
- Avoid storing pearls in an excessively dry place. Pearls like moist environments; an excessively dry environment can cause the nacre on pearls to crack. Hot lamps and strong sunlight coming through a window can severely damage pearls. This also applies to storing pearls in a safety deposit box or vault because these areas are very dry. If a safety deposit box is used, a moistened cloth can be left in the box with the pearls and checked periodically and re-dampened as needed. But don't overdo it; you don't want mildew to occur!
- Restring pearls periodically. If they are worn frequently, once every 12-18 months is recommended. Fine pearls should always be strung with knots tied to separate each pearl in order to prevent them from rubbing against each other (which can damage the nacre), or from scattering and getting lost if the string should accidentally break. One exception is with very small pearls, in which case knotting between each pearl may be aesthetically undesirable. Silk is recommended for stringing. Pearls should be strung immediately if you can move the pearls easily between the knots.
- Remove pearls prior to doing strenuous exercise or work. Perspiration is detrimental to pearls, but even more important, while quite tough, pearls are softer than most other gems and can be scratched by harder substances. Avoid wearing pearls whenever doing anything that could cause them to be scratched or knocked.
- Avoid using ultrasonic cleaners with pearls or pearl jewelry. The solutions used in these cleaners may have chemicals that can damage some pearls, especially if the nacre is thin or if there are any surface cracks. Ionic cleaners can be used to clean pearls and the solution included with these cleaners is safe. However, if cleaning a necklace or bracelet, be sure to dry the strand(s) as recommended above.
Repolishing a damaged pearl may restore its former beauty. We have had excellent success removing slight pitting, scratches, and some spots from a pearls surface by polishing the damaged pearl with a very mild abrasive and a soft chamois cloth; gently rub the pearl with a mild polishing compound (such as Linde-A polishing compound, available from most lapidary supply houses) and the chamois. You may be pleasantly surprised at how you can restore a slightly damaged pearl to its former beauty. CAUTION: DO NOT DO THIS IF THE PEARL HAS THIN NACRE! SOME THIN-NACRE PEARLS HAVE SUCH A THIN LAYER THAN EVEN A MILD ABRASIVE WILL REMOVE THE NACRE AND EXPOSE THE SHELL NUCLEUS.
10 Pearl Myths
The following myths--stories or beliefs kept alive through family and friends--are widely held and need to be dispelled!
- Pearls are not gems: False. A pearl is an organic gem, that is, a gem created by a living creature. As such, the pearl is one of the rarest and most prized of all gems.
- Pearls won't last as long as other gems: False. Pearls are not as hard as other gems but they have an unusually compact crystalline structure that makes them unusually durable, even more so than many harder gems. Pearls can withstand knocks and blows that would break many other gems. As can be seen in museums around the world, there are pearls hundreds, even thousands, of years old that have retained their beauty; some of the most famous historical pearls are still bringing great pride and pleasure to their owners, and some are commanding record prices at auctions.
- Pearls aren't as romantic or important as other gems: False. Pearls are the most romantic and symbolic of all gems, having the longest and richest history of associations to life, love, health, and happiness. The first gem associated with marriage is the pearl (that's right....not diamond) And is it a wonderful metaphor for life, for it is something of beauty and value.... that can only be created by overcoming adversity!
- Pearls aren't as valuable or precious as other gems: False. Throughout history, the pearl has been valued as the most precious of gems. Remember the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra dissolved "one pearl" in her wine to prove her love for Antony -- her pearl being the most valuable treasure she owned! In more recent history, the story of how the famous jewelry firm of Cartier obtained its regal structure on New York's Fifth Avenue, in trade for a double strand pearl necklace! The pearl necklace was valued at approximately $2 million dollars, as was Maisie Plant's mansion; she wanted the necklace and Cartier was looking for a larger NY location, and so they traded! In the Spring of 2009, the Baroda natural pearl necklace fetched over $7 million! Today, the cost of the finest South Sea cultured pearls rivals or exceeds many other gems, including the diamond, ruby, sapphire, and emerald, as seen in the $800,000 price tag on the Australian cultured pearl necklace that was over 5 years in the making by Australian producer Kailis.
- Cultured pearls are created by man: False. Customers are often confused by the term cultured or cultivated and think it is synonymous with the term synthetic, and thus, made by man. Nothing could be further from the truth because cultured pearls are made by oysters. The oyster, and natural conditions beyond the control of man, are primarily responsible for whether or not there will be a pearl at all, and if so, what its quality will be. While man starts the pearl-producing process by inserting a nucleus to act as the "irritant" that causes the mollusk to take actions that result in the creation of a pearl, fine pearls are the result of a very fragile and complex set of natural conditions.
- Natural pearls are started when a tiny grain of sand gets into the mollusk shell: False. Natural pearls are started normally by a tiny sea parasite that bores its way into the shell, or by a piece of relic shell (old shell that breaks off and becomes entrapped in the mollusks tissue) or a shark's tooth or the tooth of some other sea creatures. These often result in interesting wing and stick pearls. Shell is also what technicians use to form the nucleus of cultured pearls.
- Antique pearls are always natural pearls: False. Cultured pearls have been commercially produced for almost a hundred years, and many antique pearls are, in fact, not truly antique but cultured pearls from the early 20th century. These may be difficult to distinguish without an X-ray. In addition, many pearls in antique pieces are not real pearls, but imitation! Remember, imitation pearls have been made for hundreds of years; Queen Elizabeth I, the Pearl Queen herself, used imitation pearls on her dresses when she didn't have a sufficient number of natural pearls to do the job!
- Natural pearls are costlier than cultured pearls: False. Not always. It depends upon the quality and type of pearl. The finest, rarest, large, white cultured pearls can rival or surpass the beauty and value of a natural pearl, while many natural pearls are unattractive, undesirable, and of little value.
- Black pearls are natural pearls: False. Black pearls can be natural or cultured, and the color can be natural or dyed. Natural color, black, cultured pearls must be described as natural color black cultured pearls; failure to use the term cultured prior to the word pearl is misrepresentation and implies a natural black, natural pearl. Also, remember that natural pearls can be treated to obtain their black color; just because a pearl is a natural pearl is no guarantee that its color is natural. Buy black, or any fancy color pearl, only from dealers whose knowledge and reputation you can trust. If in doubt, seek verification from a respected gem testing laboratory.
- Prominent people own only genuine pearls: False. Throughout history, we find imitation pearls among the jewels of the rich and famous. Even the Duchess of Windsor wore imitation pearls (that were almost sold at Sotheby's as genuine cultured pearls). Of course, they also owned the real thing--magnificent gems to be sure. People also assume that inherited pearls are always genuine. This, too, is False. Don't assume that pearls that have been inherited are genuine. Many people assume, erroneously, that pearls bequeathed to another must be genuine; after all, why would anyone bequeath imitation pearls? Perhaps because they themselves didn't know their pearls were imitation; or, maybe simply for sentimental reasons. Whatever the reason, they are often found in estates.
The beautiful pearl is not your average gemstone, it is a natural gem that is formed by living organisms. From the beginning of time, the pearl has been cherished by royalty and is still considered a prized possession today. Whether you are looking for a statement piece, to celebrate a June birthday, or just a touch of elegance, you cannot go wrong when choosing the magnificent pearl. JTV's unique collection of stunning pearls provides you with a variety of colors, styles, and types.