What are pearls?

Pearls are round, hard masses formed in the shells of most living mollusks. Their lustrous appearance and smooth surface make them a popular addition to women’s jewelry and accessories. While pearls can be found in many shades, including pink and green, white and black are the most commonly used colors. There are eight basic shapes used for jewelry: round, semi-round, pear, drop, button, baroque, oval, and circled. A perfectly round pearl is rare, making it the most valuable. Less expensive options for a similar look are cultured pearls (see below), or imitation pearls, which have close to no value.

How are pearls made?

Natural pearls are made when a parasite enters a mollusk. If the parasite embeds itself into the mollusk’s soft mantle, the mollusk will cover the parasite with a sac and begin to form layers of nacre around the irritant. Nacre is the smooth, shiny substance that makes up the interior of the mollusk, usually an oyster, and over time, the layers formed around the irritant will form a pearl. Today, natural pearls are extremely rare. Only a small percentage of mollusks form pearls—out of approximately the 8,000 different species of mollusks, only about 20 are capable of regularly making pearls. Those that do produce pearls rarely generate stones that are large enough or the proper color to use as jewelry. The thicker the nacre, the more durable and desirable the pearl, which means that time needed for thicker nacre is also a factor. Natural pearls are sold by carat weight.

Nacre definition. What is nacre?

Nacre is the iridescent material that the mollusk forms in very thin layers that creates the pearl. Nacre is composed of hexagonal platelets and elastic biopolymers, which makes the material strong and resilient. The mollusk continues to deposit layers of nacre, which protects the soft tissues of the mollusk and traps parasites inside the layers. This process continues as long as the mollusk lives.

How are pearls farmed?

Originally, pearls were hunted by divers who collected them from river and ocean floors and then checked each oyster for a pearl. This contributed to the rarity of pearls, as out of a three-ton oyster haul, perhaps only three or four will contain oysters that have produced a perfect pearl. Eventually, farms were built to create pearls. Today, the entire process can be controlled, from oyster breeding, through manual nucleation, to pearl harvesting. Pearl farms are located all over the world and can be either freshwater or saltwater based.

What are lab created pearls?

Lab created, or man-made pearls, are mass produced in factories using the oyster or mollusk shells. Made from the same material as cultured or natural pearls, man-made pearls offer the same lustrous appearance. Since these pearls hold a lesser value, they are able to create affordable, yet quality jewelry. Another perk of lab created pearls is their flawless shape and long lasting color.

What types of pearls are there?

Cultured pearls are split into two basic categories – freshwater and saltwater. Freshwater pearls hold a lower value, but can be found in a vast amount of shapes and colors. Saltwater pearls are broken down further into categories based on origin. These categories are Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls.

What color are pearls?

The two terms “body color” and “overtone” are used to determine a pearl’s color. Body colors fall into either cool hues, such as green and purple, or warm hues, such as red and yellow. Overtone refers to the color that appears to “float” over the surface of the pearl. The most common pearls are white in body color with an almost creamy-colored overtone to them.

A pearl’s body color is determined by the type of mollusk and water in which it was created, as well as the initial nucleus. Particular types of oysters produce certain colors of pearls, although often times, pearls are artificially colored prior to being sold. For example, only Tahitian pearls from the Black Lip Oyster are real black pearls, which means that buyers need to be very cautious when purchasing color-specific pearls.

How are pearls graded?

The process of “grading” is used to determine the worth of pearls. However, there is currently no set industry standard, so the burden falls upon the buyer to do their own due diligence before purchasing these gems. At present, there are two grading systems used as guidelines for pearls. Both the AAA-A system and the A-D system offer some guidance for those wishing to purchase pearls, but buyers should make certain they are extremely clear on the terms the seller is using. Reputable jewelers should be happy to provide written definitions of terms and descriptions used for the pearls they are selling.

The AAA-A system uses a three-tiered grading system. Grade A pearls are at the lowest end in quality, with little luster and a high degree of flaws. Grade AA are better than Grade A pearls, and Grade AAA are considered to be the best in this system, with high luster and approximately 85% of the surface defect-free.

The A-D system is often referred to as the Tahitian System because it is used to grade South Sea and Tahitian pearls in French Polynesia. In this system, pearls are rated at level A, B, C, or D, with A being the most flawless and D having 60% of the surface covered in defects. Any pearls rated under D within this system are considered to be unacceptable for use in jewelry.

How much are pearls worth?

The value of a pearl is determined by several factors: type, size, shape, luster, color, and surface. A pearl’s origin or type will help determine its rarity. In general, natural pearls are worth much more than cultured pearls, and cultured seawater pearls are worth more than cultured freshwater pearls. Size will also add to a pearl’s value. The size of a natural pearl is determined by weight and measured in grains and carats, while a cultured pearl’s size is measured in millimeters. It can be determined if a pearl is natural or cultured by use of gemological X-ray equipment to view the center of the pearl, or by placing the pearl under a microscope. Shape only adds value if the pearl is perfectly symmetrical and round, especially when regarding a strand of pearls.

There are three grades of luster given to a pearl based on the thickness of the nacre: dull, fine, and exceptional. Color will decrease value if the pearl is dyed. A natural pink, white, or black pearl will hold the most value. Surface is graded anywhere from exceptional with no flaws, to marked with obvious flaws. Any dents or scratches will decrease the value of the pearl. Depending on the quality and piece of jewelry, cultured freshwater pearls can be priced up to $1,500, akoya pearls are priced up to $3,000, Tahitian pearls are priced up to $10,000, and South Sea pearls are priced up to $30,000.

What are cultured pearls?

In response to the rarity of pearls found in their natural habitat, the Japanese began artificially producing pearls in the early 20th century. Cultured pearls are also created in mollusks, but they are formed by mollusks in captivity and have had irritants manually inserted. This process allows for more production of pearls and over time, has allowed them to become much more affordable. Today, cultured pearls are considered the norm by those in the jewelry industry. While natural pearls are still harvested, a strand of them could cost the buyer hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, cultured pearls allow for beautiful pearls to be purchased at a greatly reduced cost. Unlike natural pearls, cultured pearls are sold by their size in millimeters.

What are freshwater pearls?

Natural freshwater pearls come from mussels that live in ponds, rivers, and lakes. Pearls can also be cultured in freshwater, with the majority started by manually inserting a piece of the mussel’s own mantle into its flesh.

What are saltwater pearls?

Found primarily in the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the coastal waters of India and Japan, naturally formed saltwater pearls closely resemble freshwater pearls in shape and color. They are produced by a saltwater mollusk, such as the pearl oyster. The most common types of saltwater pearls used in jewelry are South Sea pearls, Akoya pearls, and Tahitian pearls. Cultured saltwater pearls show a slight difference from cultured freshwater pearls, and are thought to be closer to a perfect sphere.

What are baroque pearls?

Baroque refers to the shape of the pearl. Common among cultured freshwater pearls, they consist of any irregular, lumpy, or non-spherical stone. Saltwater mollusks will also produce baroque pearls, usually in a teardrop shape.

What are Akoya pearls?

Found in saltwater, Akoya pearls are produced by the akoya-gai oyster. These are the most common among the cultured pearls found in jewelry today, and known to be the first cultured pearls in the early 1900’s by Mikimoto Kokichi, a Japanese entrepreneur. They are popular for their pink tones, and perfectly round appearance.

What are Tahitian pearls?

Often referred to as “black pearls,” these pearls can actually turn out to be a variety of colors. Produced in the mollusk shell of a mature Pinctada margaritafera, Tahitian pearls can be found in hues of pink, silver, white, green, and yellow. Its elevated value derives from the endless combination of colors found on a single pearl.

What are South Sea pearls?

Produced by the Pinctada maxima oyster, these pearls are the most valuable among the cultured pearls due to their scarcity and large size. They are split into two categories based on their color and origin – golden South Sea pearls and white South Sea pearls. Golden south sea pearls originate in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. Their golden hue gives them their name. White south sea pearls can be found in Australia in shades of white or silver. All South Sea pearls are known for their satin-like luster, and rainbow overtones.

What are keshi pearls?

Originally, these pearls were created accidentally when a bead nucleus was rejected during production of cultured pearls. Only a few millimeters in size, they cannot be formed naturally and appear as lustrous misshaped pebbles. Now, they are intentionally mass produced and used in many forms of jewelry making. Since they do not contain a nucleus, keshi pearls are composed wholly of nacre.

What are black pearls?

Known for their scarcity, black pearls are also referred to as Tahitian pearls. The mollusk which forms black pearls can produce pearls in many colors, making a black pearl extremely rare and high in value. Usually, a ‘black pearl’ is more green, gray, or purple in color. ‘Peacock’ is a shade of the black pearl in which these colors are all found on a single stone, much like the feathers of a peacock. Unlike freshwater pearls, black pearls cannot be massed produced, since saltwater pearls can only be formed in the mollusk shell one at a time. However, black pearls are still more abundant and hold less value than the South Sea pearl.

What are some famous pearls?

The Abernathy Pearl
Discovered in 1967, The Abernathy Pearl holds a reputation for being the most perfect pearl ever found in Scotland. Nicknamed “The Little Willie Pearl,” it weighed 44 grains and was found by a diver named Bill Abernathy. This pearl sat on display in a jewelry store in the city of Carincross for almost thirty years before it was finally sold in 1992.

The Big Pink Pearl
The largest natural pearl on record, The Big Pink Pearl, was found in 1990 and weighs 470 carats. It is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest natural pearl yet discovered. Valued at $4.7 million, this pearl was found by a diver and the current owner, Wesley Rankin.

The Hope Pearl
The Hope Pearl is famous for being the largest saltwater pearl, weighing 450 carats. This teardrop shaped pearl ranges in color from green to gold, and can be found in the British Museum of Natural History.

How to clean pearls?

Because of their delicate nature, pearls should always be cared for with caution. Always put pearls on after soap, make-up, lotions, and hair products have been applied. A good reminder is that when getting ready, the very last thing one should do is put on one’s pearls. It is also wise to avoid any chemicals, even jewelry cleaners. Nothing more than mild soap, water, and a soft cloth should be used for cleaning pearls, and they should be re-strung periodically to ensure the cord holding them is sturdy. Lastly, store pearls away from other jewelry, as pearls can too easily become scratched or worn down by metals and other gemstones.