The mystery of pearls has preoccupied man since the very beginning of civilization, because this beautiful gem occurs in water, unlike other precious stones. They are organic, and not mined from the earth. They are formed inside oysters and mussels (mollusks) in all types of waters – from deep to shallow, salt to fresh, from the deep oceans to river beds. Whether from a grain of sand to an implanted nucleus, Mother Nature takes over the process in a very natural way, and rare beauty is born!
Pearl strands come in four lengths: 16″ (choker), 18″ (classic), 24″ (matinee) and 30″ (opera). They are usually strung and knotted between each pearl by hand on silk cords.
Pearls are reputed to symbolize everything from virtue to chastity, purity, and wisdom. Mystical healing powers have also been attributed to them. It is believed that Roman women slept with their pearls to sweeten dreams, and it was also during these times that they embroidered them into their clothing and upholstery. Ancient Asian cultures even used them to cure ailments and disease. Europeans believed that whole or powdered pearl if swallowed, could cure matters of the heart and mind, as well as bolstering nerves, and pearls were seen as a sign of power, wealth, and distinction.
Pearl Characteristics & Grading
- Rarity – Perfection, like in any other gem, in all component characteristics is the premier factor in determining value. To get an idea of the degree of difficultly inherent in this: it takes six years, one hundred technicians and one hundred oysters, to obtain a perfect pearl!
- Size – Just as in other gems, size does matter. The larger the diameter (which in pearls is expressed in half-millimeter sizes), the rarer it is. It is the single-most-important factor in determining value, however, a larger pearl is not necessarily more valuable if it lacks in other characteristics. Pearls come in all sizes from 4 – 18 millimeters in size. Typically, freshwater and Akoya pearls are 4-9 mm; South Sea pearls are 8 millimeters and up.
- Shape – Pearls that are perfectly round are extremely rare and the most valuable. While most pearls appear to be round, only about 1% are actually perfect spheres. While round is considered the most desirable, there are many other shapes that are still quite beautiful: semi-round; semi-baroque including drop, button, and oval shapes; circled pearls with three rings or more on 1/3 surface of the pearl; and baroque pearls with asymmetrical or irregular shapes. Often times, what Mother Nature doesn’t give in terms of its shape, she may make up in other features, such as luster.
- Color – Although pearls can come in a wide range of shades, the major color classifications are white, pink, silver, cream, gold, and black. Finer quality pearls have an overtone, which usually appears toward the outside edge of the pearl. This can be rose, green or blue. Regardless of the color or shading, you should look for pearls with a deep, rich color that seems to come from within the gem.
- Luster – The unique glow that comes from the pearls surface is known as luster. It is a byproduct of the layers of nacre that the oyster created to combat the irritant; the nacre thickness on a pearl produces rainbow-like colors that appear to move on the pearl’s surface. The sharper the reflection of light on a pearls surface, the more luster it has.
- Orient – The unique radiating effect that can be seen in only the best quality pearls, as if there is a glow from within the actual pearl. This effect is very rare and only appears in a small percentage of round pearls.
- Surface Blemishes – Most pearls exhibit some degree of imperfection on their surface. These blemishes or marks should be slight and minimal.
- Uniformity – It is critical that the pearls in any strand or piece of jewelry be evenly matched in terms of their size, shape, color, luster, etc. Visible variations of these qualities not only affect the piece’s beauty but its value.
- Availability – A pearl’s value is also based on its availability. South Sea pearls command the highest prices due to their size and cost to produce. Saltwater cultured pearls generally command higher prices than freshwater cultured pearls, since a saltwater oyster can only produce one or two pearls at a time and a freshwater mussel can produce as many as 50 pearls at a time.
Major Pearl Varieties
South Sea or Tahitian – These large pearls are cultured from specific species of oysters in saltwater areas and can be white, silver, gray, golden, brown, or black. The black variety is often called Tahitian pearls.
South Sea Keshi – These irregularly shaped pearls actually grow alongside cultivated pearls. They are formed when the implanted nucleus is expelled and is grown around the remaining shell tissue. Composed primarily of nacre, these pearls grow unexpectedly inside the mollusk.
Freshwater – Originally these pearls were known for their irregular shapes, but with improved technology, they are being cultivated with a much higher degree of roundness. These are grown in mollusks found in freshwater lakes and river beds.
Mabé (pronounced mah-BEE) or Blister Pearls – These pearls have a hemispherical shape that is formed by the nucleus being placed against the inside of the oyster’s shell.
Simulated or imitation pearls – These are completely man-made (usually of glass or plastic coated with lacquer or fish scales to make them iridescent) and are not cultivated inside a mollusk or oyster. Majorca is a well-known center for the production of imitation pearls. Although there are some good imitation pearls available, few possess the luster and orient of natural cultured pearls. A simple test reveals whether or not a pearl is genuine: If one rubs a pearl against the surface of his tooth, a genuine one feels gritty, while an imitation feels smooth.
Dyed or Tinted Pearls – These are white pearls that are artificially colored by a coloring agent that permeates the porous surface of the pearl. This technique is often used in trying to simulate dark colors, such as black, blue, and gray.
Conch Pearl – This Caribbean mollusk-made gem bears very little resemblance to other pearls, other than the fact that is born in a shell and it is derived from a snail shell rather than an oyster shell. Most often, it is found in a variety of shades of pinks from deep rose (in smaller sizes) or salmon-orange to eye shadow pink. They are prized for a “flame structure”, which may be described as appearing like pink velvet with delicate white wavy lines.