History of Pearls
The pearl is the oldest known gem, and for centuries it was considered
the most valuable. A fragment of the oldest known pearl jewelry,
found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC,
is displayed in the Louvre in Paris. To the ancients, pearls were
a symbol of the moon and had magical powers. In classical Rome,
only persons above a certain rank were allowed to wear pearl jewelry.
Pearls have been considered ideal wedding gifts because they symbolize
purity and innocence. In the Hindu religion, the presentation of
an undrilled pearl and its piercing has become part of the marriage
The Latin word for pearl means "unique” which attests
to the fact that no two pearls are identical. In the romance languages
(Spanish, French, Italian), margarita means pearl. The word pearl
appeared in the English language in the fourteenth century. In the
Americas, both the Incas and Aztecs prized pearls for their beauty
and magical powers. Spanish explorers of the New World found the
natives in possession of rich pearl fisheries. For many years, the
New World was best known in European cities like Seville and Cadiz
as the land where pearls came from.
Most European countries in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries
had laws regarding who could and could not wear pearls. Teachers
and lawyers, for example, could not wear fringes or chains with
What Is A Cultured Pearl?
A cultured pearl is any pearl that was created with the assistance
of a human. A pearl is cultured by opening a live mollusk slightly
and inserting a small piece of mantle tissue or a small pearl into
the mantle of the animal. This nucleation process of introducing
a foreign object causes the mollusk to protect itself by covering
the inserted material with a substance called nacre. Once “nucleated”,
the animal is then attached to a wire frame and the frame is suspended
from a float in the water from which the animal came either seawater
in the case of salt water pearls or fresh water lakes in the case
of fresh water pearls.
A single mussel from fresh water can produce 10 or more pearls.
Natural colors can range from white, lavender, peach, or pink.
Nearly all pearls sold today are cultured pearls. Freshwater pearls
are from mussels while saltwater pearls are from oysters. The chemical
produced by the freshwater pearl mussel that forms the pearls is
identical to the chemical produced by the saltwater pearl oyster.
Several inventors at the beginning of the 20th century discovered
techniques of pearl cultivation, Kokichi Mikimoto being the most
famous of these inventors. Although some innocently consider Japan
to be the source of all pearls, China has been producing tissue-nucleated
pearls for over thirty years, but it was not until recently that
high quality round pearls began to appear. Learning how to improve
production techniques, the Chinese have steadily improved their
crops, creating larger, rounder and brighter pearls than ever thought
Changes in the Pearl Industry
The new Freshwater Cultured Pearls from China change everything
that has been constant in the pearl industry for the past 80 years.
Since the late ‘90’s China has been producing high quality
pearls that buyers thought were only available in Japan---and at
a fraction of the cost. Japan's current pollution problems at the
source of their salt water production facilities, plus an overcrowding
of oysters, and a mysterious and uncontrolled virus has decimated
much of the Japanese pearl crop. In comparison, China's clear abundant
fresh water lakes are the perfect environment for growing quality
pearls, and the market demand is growing as Chinese production quality
of Chinese Freshwater Pearls
Chinese freshwater pearls have the highest nacre to nucleus ratio
of any pearl on the market. The nacre is the pearl skin deposited
around the center nucleus by the animal. Many Chinese freshwater
pearls exhibit 90% or more nacre surrounding the tiny tissue nucleus.
High amounts of nacre increase the quality and durability of pearls,
and allow for a high luster that discriminating buyers appreciate.
The traditional nucleation using a large round shell bead or inferior
pearl can account for 80% of the content of salt water pearls from
Japan and the South Sea thereby lowering their luster and durability.
After harvesting, the pearls are often polished by hand or tumbled
with cork powder to bring up the luster.
A wide variety of shapes are produced by the fresh water mollusk
as a result of the shape of the mantle tissue that is inserted to
begin the culturing process. In addition to round pearls, the Chinese
produce ovals, coins, drops, and an infinite collection of odd shaped
baroques. Spectacular ranges of natural colors are miraculously
produced, including lavender, pink, plum, purple, cocoa, peach and
tangerine shades. From pastels to intense colors, China has created
a new "pearl palette" to compliment all of the fashion
colors in existence. China can produce 40 pearls per mollusk, compared
to as little as 1 pearl per oyster in Japan. Combined with the lowered
labor costs in China, and the elimination of the use of a costly
bead nucleus, fine Chinese pearls sell for a fraction of their Japanese
counterparts in larger sizes. Plus, smaller sizes in off round shapes
compete with price ranges of costume jewelry. Considered by many
to be the finest matched necklaces on the market, China exceeds
other pearl supplier’s ability to create necklaces with little
or no variation between pearls.
Historic Meaning of the various pearl colors:
White: Symbol of Purity
Rose, Pink: Symbol of Love
Golden: Symbol of Wealth
Peacock Green: Symbol of Romance
Sapphire Blue: Symbol of Eternity
Black: Symbol of Dignity
Judging Pearl Quality
Luster is the quantity and quality of light reflected from the surface
of a pearl. Luster does not simply mean a shiny surface: it implies
the structural beauty of the nacre. High luster pearls also have
a deep-seated glow. The luster of a good quality pearl should be
bright and not dull. You should be able to see your own reflection
clearly on the surface of a very high luster pearl. Reflected images
of overhead lights are crisp and distinct in higher luster pearls
while they are smudgy and washed-out in the dull ones. Any pearl
that appears too white, dull or chalky indicates low luster.
Nacre is the coating that the mollusk forms around the nucleus of
the pearl. Nacre thickness is more than the amount of nacre. The
structure of the nacre is composed of thousands of layers of thin
calcium carbonate crystals. This distinctive nacre structure influences
the color, luster, durability and elasticity of the pearl.
Do higher luster pearls have a longer life? Yes! High luster is
an indicator of good nacre thickness and, as such, is an assurance
of durability. The thicker the nacre coating on a pearl, the longer
it will last.
All the factors that disturb the surface smoothness of the pearl
and hence decide its appearance are called blemishes and imperfections.
The quality of the pearl is greatly affected by blemishes. Natural
blemishes are formed during pearl cultivation. By definition, a
blemish is anything that can be seen by the eye.
Overtone(s) are the colors that overlie the body color. White pearls
with rosé or silver overtones have the highest value. . Overtone
is one or two colors that overlie the body color. When inspecting
white pearls under light, you may see color in the central dark
areas of the pearls. This is the overtone. Overtone colors include
pink, silver, and green.
The rounder a pearl is, the higher its value. Pearl shapes are generally
split into four levels: Semi-baroque and baroque, Off round, Slightly
off round, Round. Semi-baroque and baroque are pear-shaped or irregular
shaped and are listed separately. Off-round pearls have flattening
on one side or are oval. Shape is important in judging pearls. Baroque
pearls have irregular, distorted shapes, but can be quite beautiful
Pearl color is a combination of body color and overtone. Body color
is the predominant basic color of the pearl. When comparing the
color of pearls, place them on a white surface. Body color can be
best seen on the outer edge of the pearl. Natural body colors include
white, light pink or pink, light cream, and dark cream, yellow or
golden. You should remember that pearl color for the purposes of
grading is not a measure of the beauty of pearls or your choice
of pearl color
Different Varieties of Pearls
In addition to the main types of pearls there are the pearl oddities:
mabe’ pearls, keshii pearls, circle pearls, and abalone pearls.
Mabe’ Pearls are half pearls, and are sometimes called blister
pearls. Basically they are grown by attaching a nucleus to the inside
of the shell and letting it be covered by nacre on one side. When
the process is finished, mabe’s look like bumps on the inside
of the mollusk shell. They are cut out of the shell and backed with
mother of pearl. Sometimes farmers use other shapes: pears, crosses,
or whatever they desire. Mabe’ are the most inexpensive of
pearl varieties. Some believe that they should be called composite
pearls since the backing isn't really pearl and there is just a
thin dome of nacre.
Abalone pearls aren't really pearls; they are mabe’s formed
in Abalone shells from New Zealand and Mexico. What makes them interesting
is the color: abalone shells have brilliant blues and greens unlike
any other variety. Still, you pay a lot for those colors. Abalone
mabe’s are five times the price of regular mabe’ pearls
Keshii means "tiny" in Japanese and keshii pearls usually
are small. They are accidents: sometimes in the pearl culturing
process, a tiny bit of other material is introduced.
The mollusk coats this too and the result is a small accidental
pearl. It's almost a natural pearl, virtually all nacre, in random
free-form shapes. Of course, since Tahitian and South Sea oysters
are larger, keshii from these varieties are much larger.
In fact, spectacular necklaces can be created from Tahitian keshii,
which are lustrous and look a little like dark freshwater pearls.
Circle pearls are ridged pearls that have concentric grooves round
their diameters, like three dimensional latitude lines striping
the surface. Circle pearls are most common from Tahiti and Tahitian
Circle pearls often have remarkable iridescent luster. Recently
some circle pearls from China have also appeared on the market.
Japanese Akoya Pearls come
from the Akoya oyster.
Akoya oysters are also used by the Chinese to produce saltwater
cultured pearls. Mikimoto pearls come from the Akoya oyster and
are the best-known Japanese saltwater cultured pearls. Japanese
Akoya pearls are the most difficult to grow due to the low survival
rates of the host oysters. Less than 5 in 10 will survive the nucleation
process. Of the survivors, about 40% will successfully encircle
the shell nucleus irritant with nacre. Overall, less than 5% of
pearl output can be considered "high quality." At the
center of every Japanese cultured pearl lies an American heart.
Shell beads used as nuclei in the cultured pearl process come from
freshwater mussels grown in the U.S.
South Sea pearls
South Sea pearls, also called White South Sea pearls, are saltwater
pearls cultivated using the Pinctada maxima oyster (as called the
silver lip or gold lip oyster), also known as the Silver-Lipped
oyster, found in the South Seas (an area centered around Northern
Australia and South-East Asia including Myanmar and Indonesia).
They produce 10-20 mm pearls of silver or gold color. For centuries,
pearl divers harvested these exotic shells for their valuable Mother
of Pearl shell to make buttons. Occasionally pearls were found inside,
and these pearls were regarded as a rare and valuable bonus.
Tahitian Black Pearls
Tahitian Blacks, also called South Sea Black pearls, are grown in
the waters of French Polynesia. They are saltwater pearls from the
Pinctada margaritifera or black-lipped oyster and can range from
gray to black with red, green or blue overtones. This oyster also
is found in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia,
the Philippines, Panama, and the Gulf of Mexico. An adult Pinctada
oyster can reach a diameter of 30 centimeters, with weight exceeding
5 kilograms (over 10 pounds). Rare specimens as large as 9 kilograms
(over 19 pounds), in fact, have been harvested. It takes about two
years before the oyster ready for harvesting. Only about 30 percent
of the oysters cultured produce a pearl.
Freshwater Cultured Pearls Freshwater
cultured pearls suffer from stereotypes. Most people, when they
hear "freshwater pearls" think of "rice krispie"
pearls: rice shaped wrinkled and very inexpensive pearls that sell
for about a buck a strand. These inexpensive pearls were produced
by the container load in China in the eighties. The market was flooded
with them. Department stores sold twists of twenty strands, they
had their fashion moment and shortly thereafter, they went out of
style and the market died.
The farmers in China were forced to change their strategy. Instead
of producing tons of cheap pearls, some farms switched to a different
freshwater mussel and started to leave pearls in the water longer.
They also discovered that they could grind small irregular reject
pearls into round nuclei and put them back into the pearls to grow
bigger, rounder premium sizes
The result? Beginning just a few
years ago, China started to produce an entire new range of fresh
water pearl qualities: 6 to 8mm white freshwater pearls that look
just like Akoya pearls (although they are sometimes off-round),
and 6mm to 9mm fancy colored pearls, round to off round, in lavenders,
pinks, and peaches; and a few rare large round strands in mixed
fancy colors that are similar in size and feeling to mixed color
Tahitian strands. The bulk of production of Chinese freshwater pearls
is still commercial quality pearls that rival commercial quality
Akoya pearls at half the price.
Although today's freshwater pearl production is overwhelmingly from
China, you will still hear people talk about Biwa pearls. These
were high quality freshwater pearls produced in Lake Biwa in Japan.
Production has basically stopped due to pollution. Usually people
who use this term today are referring to a high quality freshwater
pearl, but this is a misnomer.
The Various Lengths of Pearls
Cultured pearls are everywhere! The most popular type of pearl jewelry
is the pearl necklace but there are other types of pearl jewelry
available. There are cultured pearl bracelets, rings, earrings,
pins and brooches and pendants. Tasteful cultured pearl jewelry
for men includes tie tacks, stickpins, cufflinks and formal shirt
Collar -- 12 - 13 inches.
Pearl collars are usually made up of three or more strands and lie
snugly on the middle of the neck. Very Victorian and luxurious,
pearl collars go best with elegant V-neck, boat neck or off the
Choker -- 14 - 16 inches.
A pearl choker is perhaps the most classic and yet versatile of
all the single strand lengths. A simple pearl choker can go with
virtually any outfit from casual to fancy eveningwear and just about
any neckline imaginable.
Princess -- 17 - 19 inches.
The princess length necklace is best suited for crew and high necklines.
It also compliments low plunging necklines. It's perfect support
for a pendant or pearl enhancer
Matinee -- 20 - 24 inches.
Longer than the princess, and just a bit shorter than an opera length,
the matinee necklace is the right choice for casual or business
Opera -- 28 - 34 inches.
The opera necklace is the queen of all lengths. When worn as a single
strand, it is refined and perfect for high or crew necklines. When
doubled upon itself, it serves as a versatile two-strand choker
Rope – over 34 inches.
The rope has great versatility as it can be knotted, doubled or
tripled upon itself to create various shorter lengths and looks.
Care of your Pearls
Pearls are very soft and need special care. They never should be
tossed on top of or next to other gems in a jewelry box. Store them
in a jewelry pouch.
Some women's skin is more acid than others. If a pearl necklace
is regularly worn, as it should be, some of the pearls will constantly
be in close contact with the woman's skin on her neck at the shoulder
line. The pearls in the necklace will gradually absorb acid from
the skin and the acid will slowly eat into the spherical pearl.
Over time the pearl may lose its luster or will become barrel-shaped.
You can slow this process by wiping the pearls with a soft cloth
after wearing them.
Besides being soft, pearls are easily
damaged by chemicals like perfume, vinegar and lemon juice. Heat
can turn pearls brown or dry them out and make them crack. Dry air
can also damage pearls. Most safe deposit vaults have very dry air
and can damage pearls. When taking off a pearl ring, grasp the shank,
or metal part, rather than the pearl. This will prevent the pearl
from loosening and coming into contact with skin oil on your hand.
Because of their delicate nature,
special care must be taken when cleaning.
• Only use jewelry cleaners labeled as safe for pearls.
• Never use an ultrasonic cleaner.
• Never steam-clean pearls.
• Never use (or expose pearls)
to dish or wash detergents, bleaches,
powdered cleansers, baking soda, or ammonia-based
• Never use toothbrushes, scouring pads or abrasive materials
• Do not wear pearls when their
string is wet. Wet strings stretch and attract
dirt, which is hard to remove.
• Do not hang pearls to dry.
• Take your pearls off when
applying cosmetics, hair spray, and perfume, or
when showering or swimming.
• Have your pearls restrung
once a year if you wear them often.
After you wear pearls, just wipe them off with a soft cloth or chamois,
which may be dry or damp. This will prevent dirt from accumulating
and keep perspiration, which is slightly acidic, from eating away
at the pearl nacre. You can even use a drop of olive oil on the
cloth to help maintain their luster.
If pearls have not been kept clean
and are very dirty, they should only be cleaned by your jeweler
or they can be cleans using special pearl cleaner. DO NOT use other
types of jewelry cleaners or soap. Some liquid soap, such as Dawn,
can damage pearls. Pay attention to the areas around the drill holes
where dirt may tend to collect.
After washing your pearls, lay them
flat in a moist kitchen towel to dry. When the towel is dry, your
pearls should be dry.
About every six months have a jewelry
professional verify that the pearls on your jeweler are securely
mounted or that the string is still good. Many jewelers will do
this free of charge, and they'll be happy to answer your questions
about the care of your jewelry.
CARE from the University of Wisconsin.