Pearls have adorned crowns, clothing, and temples and were said to be a favorite of Cleopatra, yet they are perfectly suited for young girls and are a popular gift for first communion.
Pearls come in a wide range of colors from delicate rose white to black. The higher the luster or “orient,” the more valuable the specimen. Greeks believed that pearls were the hardened tears of joy that the Love Goddess shook from her eyes as she was born from the sea.
Pearls are an organic gem, created when a mollusk like an oyster covers a foreign object with beautiful layers of nacre, the mother of pearl. Once occurring only by chance, today most pears are cultured by man. A shell bead or mantle tissue is placed inside an oyster and the oyster is returned to the water. When the pearl is later harvested, the oyster has covered the beat or tissue with layers of nacre.
The cultured pearl industry began in Japan with Akoya saltwater cultured pearls. A wardrobe classis, these lustrous white strands are still produced in Japan today but they are much more rare, as ocean pollution and the industrialization of Japan has made it more difficult to farm oysters in the coastal bays. Akoya cultured pearls are known for exceptional luster, due in part to the cold waters where they are grown.
Today the majority of the cultured pearls on the market, even traditional looking white strands, are freshwater pearls cultured in China. Most freshwater pearls are nucleated with tissue instead of a round bead, which means that the nacre is thicker, but the pearl ends up being not perfectly round. China also produces freshwater cultured pearls in warm pastel pink, oranges, and purples.
In the warmer waters of the South Pacific, bigger mollusks produce South Sea cultured pearls and black Tahitian cultured pearls, which are larger, up to 20mm in size. South Sea cultured pearls, white, cream, and golden in color, are the world’s most valued pearls for their immense size and natural satiny luster. South Sea pearls are produced in Australia, the Philippines, and Burma.
The popularity of Tahitian cultured pearls has exploded over the past decade. These natural colored pearls are not just black: they are grown in an amazing range of colors, including pistachio, silver, eggplant, green, and charcoal, with shimmering iridescent overtones.
The quality of cultured pearls is judged by the orient, which is the soft iridescence caused by the refraction of light by the layers of nacre, the luster, the reflectivity and shine of the surface. Also look for any flaws or spots in the nacre – the best pears have an even, smooth texture. Other factors that affect value are the regularity of the shape, size, and color.
Because pearls are organic, they have a relatively low hardness of 2.5 to 3.5 and should be stored away from other jewelry to prevent scratching. Always put on perfume and sprays before you put on pearls, since chemicals may be absorbed into pearls, staining them. Wipe clean with a moist, soft cloth.
Pearl Fine Jewelry by Mark Schneider Design
The Gemstones Handbook, Arthur Thomas, 2008. Published by Fall River Press, New York.
Gemstones, Understanding, Identifying, and Buying. Keith Walls FGS, 2007. Published by Antique Collector Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom.