Unlike most metals and gemstones found on Earth, pearls are found inside a living being, an oyster. They are the product of a biological process which happens when the oyster is protecting itself from foreign materials. It is worth noting that oysters are not the only mollusk that can produce pearls; mussels and clams can also form pearls, though that occurrence is uncommon. Contrary to popular belief, pearls are rarely formed by introducing a sand particle into an oyster's shell. Instead, it forms when an irritant like a food particle gets trapped in the mollusk, after which the oyster starts covering it with coats of conchiolin and aragonite. A wide range of pearl types can be found in nature, including:

  • Lingha or Linga pearls are the highest quality pearls formed in marine oysters. Due to their unique nature, they are hard to find and expensive.

  • Seed pearls are tiny pearls formed in a saltwater oyster or freshwater mussel.

  • Button pearls feature a domed top and a slightly curved bottom. In a necklace, button pearls appear to be more roundish. These pearls are generally used for earrings attached with ear grips on the flat side. 

  • Blister pearls are hollow pearls and the most unusual of the bunch. They grow against the inside of an oyster's shell. Thus they need to be cut out from the source.

The Influence of Pearls On Different Cultures

Pearls, mainly freshwater varieties, come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors, each different from the others. However, soft white round pearls are more commonly found in saltwater bodies. The shape of the pearls is closely associated with the moon, and pearls are born in an aquatic domain, which is why these associations are further strengthened. Most pearls sold today are commercially farmed, where a farmer places a small globule of shell into an oyster’s shell to start the layering process. The shiny and soft nature of pearls has made them a favorite gemstone for thousands of years across different cultures. 

Indians, Greeks, and Egyptians

In Hindu mythology, it was believed that pearls were formed when dewdrops were dropped into the sea by the moon. On the other hand, Greek mythology says that pears were the goddess Aphrodite’s tears of joy. It is said that the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, crushed one of her pearls to a powder and put it in a goblet of wine while dining with Marc Anthony to show her wealth. 

The Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, pearls were worn as amulets because they were believed to protect against war enemies. Monarchs and other noblemen would take their valuable pearls onto the battleground, believing the gem would protect them. Churchgoers would also offer pearls as a form of repentance for their sins. When a lot of treasure was collected, the church began finding creative ways to utilize the gems, one of which was to adorn religious manuscripts with pearls.

Europe and the New Worlds

From approximately the 14th century, kings in Europe would lavishly wear pearl jewelry. These were considered the ultimate sign of royalty and wealth and could only be afforded by the richest. Due to its popularity, the Duke of Saxony passed a law that allowed only royals to wear pearls. The Queen of England, Elizabeth I, was always seen wearing pearls and flashy costumes whenever she went out in public. In the South Sea, indigenous people used pearls as part of dream interpretation and religious ceremonies. 

Today, we still see the association of pearls with sophistication, wealth, and status. Some famous pearl lovers included Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Dianna, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton. 

The Birth of a Pearl

The birth of a pearl is quite magical and mystical. These gems are born when a foreign particle gets stuck between the mollusk’s (oyster, clam, mussel, etc.) mantle and shell. In response to this foreign object getting lodged, the animal secretes nacre, a protective layer that minimizes irritation. Nacre is called mother-of-pearl since it consists of tiny particles of calcium carbonate and covers the inside of the animal’s shell. Coats of nacre are added to the foreign object, gradually forming the white and iridescent orb we call the pearl. With freshwater pearls, foreign objects are not deliberately added to the shell; cutting the mollusk’s tender tissues is sufficient to start the pearl formation.  

Freshwater vs. Saltwater vs. Keshi Pearls

Freshwater pearls form in the shells of mussels and are generally found in rivers and lakes in China. Originally, freshwater pearls were more unusual in shape and lacked luster. With the advancement of technology, these pearls have drastically enhanced their quality, shade range, shine, and shape. The present-day freshwater pearls are sometimes compared with Akoya pearls, a much more expensive version of saltwater pearls. Compared to Akoya pearls, freshwater pearls are smaller and more uneven in shape.

On the other hand, saltwater pearls come from oysters that live in saltwater environments and are rounder and shinier than freshwater pearls. The cost of producing saltwater pearls is much higher, making them more expensive and valuable. There are different types of saltwater pearls, such as:

  • Akoya pearls: These are saltwater pearls commercially farmed in the salt lakes of Japan. They are classic white pearls famous for their shiny white, silver white, and light pink shades. They stand out amongst other pearls due to their round shape and bigger size. Compared to freshwater pearls, Akoya pearl mollusks rarely produce more than two peals in their lifespan.
     
  • Tahitian pearls: These are the only black pearls formed in nature produced by the black-lipped Pinctada oysters in the French Polynesian waters. They are the second rarest type of pearls thanks to their striking colors and impeccable shine caused by their special nacre thickness. Even though Tahitian pearls are usually known for their unusual black color, they offer the widest range of colors compared to other pearl types. Some examples of these exotic colors include dark purple, blue, silver green, and peacock green. 

  • Golden and White South Sea: This saltwater pearl is the most valuable and rare. They come in a comprehensive shade range from dark golden to pure white and have the highest nacre thickness of all pearls. Due to the presence of aragonite crystals within its nacre, Golden and White South Sea pearls have an unparalleled luster. Compared to Akoya pearls, they take twice as long to farm, and the final product is fragile and delicate. For this reason, production requires heavy investments and a high level of expertise since these pearls can only thrive within the waters of the Australian northwest coast.

Keshi pearls are perhaps the most unique among other pearls due to their beautiful luster and abstract shapes. They are fully organic pearls since the nucleus inside is non-existent. This means that this pearl contains nothing but nacre in its purest form. Keshi pearls are a by-product of commercial cultivation. Since nacre is a precious component, these pearls are expensive and valuable. 

How are Pearls Formed?

Most pearls are formed when the mineral aragonite is structured in sheets of six-sided flat crystals. Between every sheet, the animal discharges a very thin conchiolin layer, a membrane-creating protein. The crystal-like composition of the nacre uniquely reflects light, giving the gem its shine and iridescence. On the other hand, some pearls are not very nacreous, meaning they do not have a shiny white surface. The sharp aragonite crystals are arranged at an angle or perpendicularly in such pearls. Since aragonite is soft, its shell can be easily carved to create different shapes and motifs. 

What are Pearls Made of?

A pearl is made up of the same components as the shell of a mollusk. It comprises aragonite or a mix of aragonite and calcite combined with an organic binder known as conchiolin. In an entirely natural state, only a tiny percent of mollusks create a pearl, and from those, only some will develop it to the right shape, color, and size. It is believed that one in every 10,000 mollusks forms perfectly round and spot-free pearls, which meet the standards for a valuable gem. As opposed to commercially farmed pearls produced in larger quantities, natural pearls are formed by chance once in a blue moon, making it a natural miracle. Several factors contribute to the quality of a pearl, such as weather, latitude, nature of plankton, quality of the ocean soil, sea conditions, and the health of the mollusk. 

How to Differentiate between Real vs. Fake Pearls?

Pearls are beautiful and valuable gemstones celebrated by ancient and modern royals. Due to their appeal, many artificial procedures have become common enough to produce fake alternatives. Imitation pearls are man-made gems made from plastic, glass, shells, or alabaster with a pearly finish. While some fakes are easier to spot than others (such as Majorica pearls), others are much harder to detect. Before making a purchase, make sure to look out for the details.

  • Temperature: Nature pearls have a cool temperature and will take a few seconds to warm up against your skin. Imitation pearls made of plastic generally have the same temperature as their surroundings and stay consistent. Fake glass pearls feel cool, but they take a lot longer to adjust to your skin's temperature. 
  • Minor imperfections: Natural and cultured pearls almost always come with tiny irregularities, regardless of their quality. If the pearls are truly blemish-free and completely identical in color, size, shape, and surface characteristics, they are likely fake. Imitation pearls also reflect light differently than natural and cultured pearls – they are unnaturally lustrous and glossy. 
  • Shape: The majority of natural pearls are rarely perfectly round. They come in various shapes like button, circled, oval, and completely irregular baroque. Rounder pearls are generally more expensive than pearls of other shapes, but they will still have hints of differences. Avoid necklaces that feature pearls with identical roundness. 
  • Surface: Both real and cultured pearls have a slightly rough surface due to the layered structure of the nacre. Rub the pearl beads gently against each other, and feel if they have a hint of grit. Fake pearls typically have an even and smooth finish. When real pearls are rubbed against each other, they create a fine powder. This tip can help you determine whether the pearls you are dealing with are real or fake.
  • Weight: Natural pearls are heavier than imitation pearls due to multiple nacre layers. Place them in your hand and examine the weight difference. Remember that fake pearls made of glass will feel heavier than real pearls, so take your time feeling for the discrepancies.
  • Drill holes: The drill holes in fake pearls are generally larger when compared to those in natural pearls. Furthermore, the coating around the drill holes in imitation pearls is thin and resembles a shiny material. Use a magnifying glass to look for any chipping or flaking around the coating, as it easily peels off. 

How Long Does it Take to Make a Pearl?

Forming a pearl can take anywhere from six months to several years. Before the formation process begins, a mollusk takes approximately three years to reach maturity and produce a pearl. The animal can only start the pearl-making procedure naturally or with the help of humans after it has reached that mature age. After the phenomenon starts, the pearl can take around 3 to 4 years to reach the desired thickness and size. After the pearl has been fully formed, the farmer must carefully detach it from the animal’s soft tissues. 

Harvesting Pearls

Pearl farmers are trained experts with high levels of precision and patience. They wait for years while the pearl develops in the mollusk's shell. When the development process has been completed, the farmer carefully opens the shell, cuts the pearl from the animal's tissues, and examines its quality. Several factors are used to assess the quality of a pearl and distinguish it from fake or cultured pearls. 

Nacre

The nacre quality is a fundamental contributor to the final value of a pearl. Nacre thickness is the quantity of nacre surrounding the pearl’s nucleus. Pearls with a higher level of nacre thickness are deemed more valuable than those with lower thicknesses. This is because nacre thickness shows how long the pearl remained in the production stage since every coat of nacre is naturally added by the mollusk. The older the pearl, the thicker it will be and thus more desirable. Judging the thickness of the nacre requires a lot of skill and experience. A gem enthusiast can gauge the quality of a pearl by examining its weight and shine. More luminescent pearls are usually the result of a higher nacre thickness. Moreover, they tend to be heavier since nacre layers add more weight to the pearl. 

Surface 

When extracting pearls, it is crucial to assess the gem's surface for any bumps, scratches, bumps, or other imperfections. Because they undergo a process of natural formation, pearls rarely come out completely flawless; at times, imperfections can make a statement on their own. However, it is essential to maintain uniformity to avoid unwanted attention when it comes to pearl necklaces or bracelets. 

Shape 

Pearls are generally preferred in a perfectly round shape. However, some pearls, such as button pearls, are celebrated for their unusual shape and ability to incorporate well into certain jewelry pieces. Such pearls are still usually not as expensive as pearls of the same shine and weight that are round.

Size

Pearls are weighed in millimeters; the more millimeters they have, the greater their value will be. Even the difference of a single millimeter can significantly increase or decrease the value of this gem. 

Color

The most widely available pearl colors range between muted shades of white, silver, rose, champagne, and even green. Tahitian pearls are the rarest due to their black color. Natural colors are not uniform throughout different pearls and come in numerous tints and hues. When choosing your pearls, it is critical to know if the color is naturally-occurring or chemically dyed. Modifying pearls through an artificial process can significantly slash their value. When picking the color of your pearls, ensure it matches your taste, style, and overall complexion. Usually, cream and golden-tinted pearls look best on deeper skin tones, while different shades of rose and champagne suit paler skin tones.  

Conclusion

Pearls are a timeless gem known for their delicate beauty and sophistication. Unlike other popular gems, they are formed in the shell of an animal, making their birth very unique. Whether a pearl enthusiast or a novice, you can choose various colors, shapes, sizes, and categories to suit your needs. From the classic round white pearls to oval peacock green and even black pearls, there is something for everyone. Knowing the fundamental differences between real and fake pearls before making a purchase is vital to getting the most out of your investment. 

December 30, 2022 — Arun Yadav
beadsofcambay.com widget logo