The Journey of a Pearl
Pearls are perhaps the most misunderstood and under appreciated of gemstones. Of all the natural gemstones that are cut and faceted to enhance their internal brilliance and beauty, it takes a special eye to appreciate the soft and unassuming glow of a Pearl. From the beginning of the culturing process to time of the Pearl harvest, it can be a journey of three to ten years.
A cultured Pearl comes from the intervention of humans to place an irritant within an oyster that will the begin the secretion of nacre to coat layers over the irritant. A piece of mantle tissue is surgically inserted into a mollusk, and the mollusk then secretes fluids in layers of nacre, forming a Pearl over time. Each implanted mollusk is kept in nets placed deep into the ocean. The nets are brought up and examined during each year for rejection or death of the oyster. Weather conditions affect the ocean waters and much damage can occur from storms, raging winds, or temperature changes. Therefore, each year loss of the mollusks will occur and the initial financial investment dwindles. There are thousands of manual hours invested into the surgical implementation, checking on the mollusks throughout each year, and the longevity of the entire process. When the time comes for harvesting the Pearl crop, it's discovered how many of the initial mollusks actually produced a Pearl that will be for jewelry quality. Many of the formed Pearls can be misshaped, of inconsistent color, poor surface quality, or of an odd size. Each mollusk can produce one Pearl, so a crop of 10,000 potential oysters could only harvest 500 jewelry quality Pearls!
Once the jewelry quality Pearls have been harvested, they have to be sorted by size, color, shape, luster, surface quality, and nacre thickness to be matched to become a strand of Pearls. It has been estimated that over 5000 Pearls would be examined to find 70-100 that matched.
Therefore, the journey of a Pearl is tedious, expensive, long, and risky. Yet the gift of Pearls should last a lifetime. Many colored gemstones or Diamonds can be acquired, yet many will own only one strand of Pearls. So select your Pearls for beauty, desirability, and the sentiment to give lovingly to future generations.
Categories of Pearls
There are three categories of Pearls which are Natural, Cultured, and Imitation.
Natural Pearls are both rare and valuable as a true gift from nature. There is no human intervention into the mollusk or oyster, therefore producing a Pearl that is completely formed of nacre with high luster and beauty. An irritant from nature enters into the mollusk which then begins to secrete layers of fluid. These layers of fluid are called nacre layers, and over the years begin to coat and soothe over the irritant until a Pearl is formed. Because of the rarity of Natural Pearls, the only method of identification is by x-ray to confirm the phenomena. Natural Pearls are scarce and the most valuable of all Pearls.
Cultured Pearls are grown and harvested through both human intervention and Mother Nature. The growth and time is similar to the Natural Pearl, yet the culturing process requires that an irritant be implanted into the mollusk or oyster. The human implementation of the irritant then begins the secretion of the fluid with coats of nacre layers, which will produce a Cultured Pearl. The irritants that are surgically implanted are often beads or pieces of shell, called Mother of Pearl, that become the nucleus within the Cultured Pearl. Many types of Cultured Pearls are grown in both salt and fresh waters that vary in size, color, shape, and value.
The name Imitation denotes that is it not a genuine Pearl. Generally these are beads that are dipped into a pearlized liquid finish. They are thinly coated, can peel off easily, wear off, discolor, and chip. Imitations are inexpensive compared to Cultured, and especially Natural, Pearls. They can usually be identified by placing a bead between your teeth where they will have a smooth and glass-like feel. The nacre layers on a Cultured or Natural Pearl will have a gritty feel against your teeth.
Types of Cultured Pearls
There are different types of Cultured Pearls that differ from each other by the origin, size, color, and shape which can affect their value and appearance.
Akoya Pearls are considered the best known and most familiar of all the Cultured Pearls. Often referred to as "Heirloom" Pearls, the Akoyas are chosen to be worn in weddings, gifted for anniversaries, birthdays, and other special moments in life. They are grown and harvested in the colder salt waters of China and Japan, yet the Japanese Akoya Pearls are consider to be the most lustrous, beautiful, and valuable. Only one Pearl can be produced in an oyster, so it is a long and tedious process to produce each one to completion. The water temperature, storms, and rejection or death of the oysters can affect the Pearl harvest and reflects both in the rarity and value. Akoya Pearls are spherical is shape with the highest luster of all the Cultured Pearls. Size of Pearls are measured by the diameter in millimeters and they typically range from 2 to 10mm, with the most common being 6 to 8mm. The body colors are white or cream with hues of yellow, blue or green and overtones of rose or green. The luster on the Akoya Pearl can be from fair, good, to excellent showing a mirror-like sharp reflection of light. The most desirable Akoya would be a Pearl of excellent luster, smooth and clean surface finish, and a thicker nacre layer.
South Sea Pearls come from the warmer salt waters of Australia, the Islands of the South Pacific, and Indonesia. They are larger in size, more irregular in shape, and are considered to be the largest of all Cultured Pearls and perhaps the most rare. The larger size comes from a long growing time, where again many factors can affect the Pearl crop outcome and the value. Millimeter sizes range from 8 to 16mm, with the average size around 13mm. Colors range from white, silver, and gold.
The Tahitian Cultured Pearls are grown and harvested in the warmer waters of the French Polynesia or Tahiti, for which they are named. They are produced by the Black Lipped Oysters which are larger, more rare, and indigenous to those waters. These Pearls are also more irregular in shape and size and larger, yet not as large as the South Sea. Colors are mostly grey, silver, bronze, with overtones of greens and peacock. Sizes range from 7 to 12mm. The Tahitian Pearls can be both rare and valuable, but are not as well known.
The Freshwater Pearls are very popular and highly sought after for their availability and affordable prices. Many of the Freshwater Pearls are grown in the freshwater ponds and lakes of China. Freshwater Pearls can be Natural just as the saltwater, or they can also be implanted with mantle tissue pieces within the freshwater mussels. There can be more than one Pearl produced within the mussel and are usually irregular in both size and shape. Sizes range from 4 to 14mm with the average between 6 to 8mm, with oval or egg-like shapes. The Freshwater is the most active in Pearl farming now offering more production and price options.
Factors that Determine Pearl Value
There are many factors that determine the value of Pearls ranging from the origin, size, shape, nacre thickness, luster, surface quality, color, and matching. Pearls are an organic gem that involve years of Culturing, growing, and harvesting that are affected by the effects from Mother Nature. Even when a Pearl reaches completion, they are not all equal for beauty and appearance. Of all the Pearls harvested, only a very small percent is considered to be of high enough value for stringing into Pearl strands or to use as individual Pearls for pendants, earrings, or rings. Pearls are individually evaluated by their appearance for their the following factors.
Luster is the shine or reflection on the Pearl. A high luster would be of high sheen with a mirror-like reflection or glow. A low luster would be a chalky, almost monotone appearance that would not reflect light. The higher the luster, the more desirable.
The Surface Quality is the overall appearance of the Pearl as to smoothness and an even overall feel. As a result of being produced by a living oyster, and years under water, there are many factors that can effect the surface of a Pearl. An even and smooth appearance and feel would be more desirable than surface bumps or an uneven texture.
Shapes can be off-round, pear, oval, or mis-shaped. The most desirable and valued shape is the spherical round.
There is a vast array of colors and tones from white to dark, with the most common being white or cream with warm to cool tones. Preferences for color can also depend on personal skin tones. Many believe that fair complexions look favorable in white Pearls with rose and cool tones, while olive to dark complexions are complemented by the cream to gold tones. Pearl colors can vary in desirability from the origin of the Pearl.
The size of the Pearls also varies with the origin of the Pearl, and are measured around the diameter in millimeters. When other factors are considered, the larger the Pearl, the greater the value.
The Culturing process begins by human intervention when an irritant is implanted into an oyster or mollusk. As the Mollusk begins secreting a fluid to cover over the irritant it creates layers of nacre which begin to form a Pearl. The thickness of the nacre forms layer by layer as long as the Pearl can survive under water throughout the 5 to 10 year Culturing process. The nacre thickness is what makes the Pearl more durable.
The sum of all the desirable factors together will reflect the best quality for matching for Gem quality Pearls. Pearls will be matched for uniformity of color, luster, shape, size, with little to no noticeable difference between the Pearls. Thousands of Pearls will be sorted to match one strand of Pearls or a matched set of earrings. Only a very small percentage of Pearls are of high value to be set or strung into jewelry. Thus the selection of Pearls for quality matching greatly affects both the rarity and value which are to be both admired and appreciated.
Jewelry Care and Tips for Your Pearls
Pearls are an organic gem and do require special care to protect and preserve them. It is helpful to wipe your Pearl jewelry with a soft cloth after each time you wear them, and before you store them away. Store them in a soft cloth or pouch by themselves, not in a plastic bag, and keep them separate from other jewelry.
Protect your Pearls by keeping them away from chemicals such as perfumes, cosmetics, hairspray, bleach, baking soda, ammonia, laundry detergent, and ultra-sonic cleaners. Do not clean them with a brush, and use a cleaning solution that is for Pearls only or take them to a jeweler.
Earrings are commonly set onto small posts within a rounded mounting that allows almost the entire Pearl to show on your ear. When removing your Pearl earrings gently put your fingers behind the mounting to remove and not pull forward on the Pearl or it will become loose or dislodged.
Many strands are knotted between each Pearl on a silk cord to prevent rubbing against each other, and to prevent loss if the strand is pulled or should break. Check your strands each year to make sure the knots remain uniform and secure. If fraying of the strand occurs, or if the Pearls can slip over the knots, then take them to a jeweler to be restrung.
When purchasing a strand of Pearls, also consider a matching bracelet. The bracelet can be attached into the Pearl strand at the clasp to allow for a longer length, or they can be worn separately to give you three different looks. Other Pearls such as rings and earrings can also be matched for size and color to offer more styling options.
Put your Pearls on as the last thing after getting dressed to keep them looking their best. The better the care, the longer the wear.