Of all the gems and minerals used to design and produce beautiful pieces of jewelry, pearls are considered the most classic, timeless, and sophisticated. The picture that pops into our mind most often when anyone mentions pearls is a vision of Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress and pearl choker. Most women are familiar with diamonds and their different shapes, how they are graded, how to determine the value of diamonds, where diamonds originate from, and so on. But are you as familiar with pearls? If not, continue reading.
Where Do Pearls Originate?
Pearls are the result of the inside of a mollusk (oyster, mussel, etc.) becoming irritated by some parasite or predator. Much like a mosquito bite (irritant/predator), we may receive resulting in a red, raised bump (pearl). Pearls produced this way are called natural pearls – naturally produced.
Most of the oysters in this day and time are grown or cultured by manually implanting a seed or nucleus inside the oyster or mussel. These are known as cultured pearls.
A saltwater cultured pearl is produced by implanting a seed into an oyster, and for a freshwater cultured pearl, a seed is implanted into a mussel. Saltwater Pearls are normally larger and smoother, and Freshwater Pearls are typically more irregular in shape and smaller. Saltwater Pearls take longer to grow than Freshwater Pearls, therefore making the Freshwater Pearl more affordable than the Saltwater Pearl. Technical advancements in this industry now enable Freshwater Pearls to be produced akin to Saltwater pearls.
Pearls grow from the part of the oyster or mussel known as the Nacre. The nacre is a combination of Calcium Carbonate & Conchiolin that line the mollusk’s shell. The Nacre is what responds to the foreign body that invades these mollusks by excreting more nacre to protect itself. In trying to protect itself, the nacre seals itself off and is deposited on this inner surface of the shell. This nacre, lining the inside of the shell is iridescent in color and is referred to as Mother of Pearl. So, pearls are made of Nacre; calcium carbonate and Conchiolin.
Types of Pearls
Freshwater Pearls –naturally grown or cultivated inside a mussel. Freshwater pearls grow anywhere there is a supply of fresh water as in Northern Europe, Japan, and North America. The major freshwater farms are in China on the Yangtze River Delta. In America, freshwater pearls primarily come from the Mississippi River Basin.
These pearls have a wide range of whimsical shapes and colors. Because they grow faster than saltwater pearls, they are affordable. The closer to round and large these pearls are, the higher the price one will pay.
Saltwater Pearls – naturally grown or cultivated inside an oyster.
Akoya Pearl: Japanese Akoya Pearl and the Chinese Akoya Pearl both come from the Akoya Pearl Oyster.
Most of the pearls sold are Akoya Pearls.
- Known for its high quality and brilliant white color and luster
- Can come in a wide array of other colors in addition to the white
- Has clean surfaces and usually round
- Smaller size pearl because it grows mainly in colder temperatures thus grows slower, and the Akoya Oyster is a smaller oyster
- Size can range between 2mm up to 11mm
South Seas Pearls: Naturally grown or cultured inside a different oyster (Pinctada maxima) from the Akoya Oyster:
- The South Seas Pearls are rare because these oysters have very short lifespans.
- Found mainly in Australia with some being from Indonesia and the Philippines.
- Only 10-30% of these oysters produce round or near round pearls.
- Approximately 70-90% of these oysters produce baroque (irregularly shaped) and “drop” shape pearls.
- Due to the rarity of the South Seas Pearls and their beauty they are more valuable.
- Size ranges between 8mm and 20mm with 13mm being the average.
Tahitian Pearls – Naturally grown or cultured inside the Black-lip Oyster (Pinctada Magari ti Fera):
- Found mainly in the French Polynesian Islands
- As the name implies, Black-lipped oysters produce a stunning array of iridescent black, gray, and greenish black saltwater pearls.
- Governmentally controlled to ensure consistent quality and minimum standards.
- Only 5-10% of Tahitian Pearls produced are round, therefore, commanding a high sale price for them.
- High luster and vivid colors.
First off, pearls are valued by whether the pearls are natural pearls (very rare), cultured saltwater pearls, or cultured freshwater pearls. They are valued roughly in that order as well. After this, pearls are valued by a combination of:
- Luster – Best reflects the pearl’s beauty of having a deep glow, not cloudy, polished look.
- Color- Most are white but can come in cream, black, gold, etc. The more vivid the color, the more value is given.
- Size – Size is important with pearls. The larger the pearl, the more valuable with all other factors being equal. The average size pearl sold these days is between 7mm and 12mm.
- Surface Flaws – also thought of as “cleanliness.” This cleanliness is referenced to the surface condition of the pearl: bumps, depressions, cracks, ridges, and other blemishes. All pearls have some flaws, but it’s all about the degree to which they have them that can affect the value.
- Matching – owning pearls is such a statement because of its uniqueness. No two are alike in the world because they are a natural product and man cannot determine how a pearl will grow. This is unlike a diamond that can be cut to match others. Pearls can be mixed to construct various patterns using various sizes and shapes. The ability to match pearls can lend itself to a higher price tag.
Caring for Your Pearls
- Put your pearls on LAST- Pearls are soft and porous therefore easily damaged by make-up, hairspray, a squirt of perfume, and other chemicals and heat. Therefore, put your pearls on AFTER applying these items.
- BUT BEFORE hand lotion, or at least wait 10 minutes then put on your pearls.
- Other products to keep away from your pearls: alcohol, chlorine, lemon, and other acidic products.
- After wearing them, wipe with a damp cloth. Avoid washing your pearls with soaps. A damp cloth is sufficient.
- Store in the boxes or cloth pouches they came in.
- Do not store alongside your harder jewelry. Rubbing up against harder objects will damage them; even when traveling so place your pearls in a separate jewelry pouch.
- Inspect and replace the “string” periodically…depending on how often you wear your pearls. Every 1-2 years.
- All strands should be double knotted between each pearl to avoid losing ALL of them, should the string break.
- Pearls love to be worn. Your body’s natural oils help to maintain your pearls’ luster.
Wear your pearls often and proudly. Layer your pearls with other necklaces to make a statement but vary the lengths to avoid rubbing against each other. To feel like Audrey Hepburn a single strand is all you need. I wish you an Audrey Hepburn kind of Labor Day.
For a cute little cheat sheet of various necklace names, click here.
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