Last Updated on August 14, 2021 by Carla Jonas
Most people can tell you that pearls come from the sea. Beyond that, though, an unfortunate number of people–even those who are interested in purchasing pearls–cannot tell you how they are formed, and/or what types of pearls are available and the differences between them. In fact, a relatively low number of people even realize that pearls come in shapes other than round or colors other than white and cream. Educating yourself about pearl origins and types is more than an interesting activity–it will make you a better buyer. If you know what it is that you are purchasing and the factors that affect its value, you can better navigate the waters of the pearl-buyer’s market and ensure that you are getting the best deal for your money. This applies regardless if you are shopping for necklaces, bracelets, loose pearls or pearl engagement rings.
Here is what you need to know about pearls, as well as why and how you should use this information when purchasing a pearl:
How pearls are formed – and why this information is relevant to your purchase
Pearls are a prime example of the beauty and magic of Mother Nature. They are the by-product of an incredible defense mechanism exhibited by oysters and other mollusks. The insides of these creatures are very soft and are easily injured by the smallest rocks and pieces of shell that happen to drift inside. When one of these irritants makes its way inside an oyster, the oyster produces a milky substance called nacre, which it then uses to insulate its tender meat from the rough texture of the rock or piece of sand. The oyster wraps the irritant in this nacre and rolls it around, over and over, until a thick layer of protection is built. The layers of nacre, together with the irritant they encapsulate, form what becomes a pearl.
While lovely, this creation story is more than an interesting fact about nature. Knowing that this is how pearls are formed helps you understand why various components of pearls are the way that they are. For example, the type and texture of the nacre produced by the pearl causes the varieties in color and reflectivity (or luster) of pearls. Also, it will now make sense why oysters that are allowed to spend more time creating their pearls end up producing pearls with thicker–and therefore more resilient–nacre. You can now see why pearls come in a variety of shapes; because they are not man- or machine-made, they attain the unique properties that Mother Nature assigns to them during the formation process. Like everything that is made naturally, pearl creation is not an exact science.
How humans changed the pearl production process, making them affordable
The very fact that you are now able to purchase pearls at all is due to the fact that Man is an impatient creature. When early fishermen discovered pearls (likely not long after humans first appeared on this planet), the pearls were, of course, a rare find. And rare means expensive. This is why for centuries pearl ownership was limited to royalty and the elite members of society. Everyday people simply could not afford them. This explains the incorporation of pearls into jewelry, crowns, clothing, and rare pieces of art all over the world. Pearls were a symbol of nobility, and the thought of anyone of lower social status being able to possess them was laughable–even offensive. Given the insatiable market for pearls and man’s ingenuity, the seeds for a new market were sown.
Generally speaking, humans cannot “force” an oyster to make a pearl. But one process that we can control is the irritant which gets into the oyster’s shell and sparks the pearl-creation process. Humans have now inserted themselves into this process, creating farms at which they maintain oysters and other mollusks and harvest pearls for sale on the open market. The pearl farmer gently opens the oyster and introduces a tiny irritant into its shell, then returns it to the water. He waits an allotted amount of time before retrieving the oyster from the water, recovering the pearl inside. Do this a couple thousand times, and you will see how man’s involvement completely changed the face of the pearl industry. While the pearls are still naturally made, and are still as beautiful as ever, there are (comparatively) so many more of them available for sale to the public. And this is why you, as a (presumably) non-royal person, are able to purchase pearls for relatively inexpensive prices.
What this information means for you
First, it helps explain part of the reasons why pearls are a wise purchase. Pearls have been adored and sought after by men and women ever since they were first pulled from the sea. From their role as the gemstone of royalty to their inclusion on red carpets across the world today, the pearl’s popularity has never waned.
More importantly, understanding the development of the pearl explains why they are classified as a renewable resource. With pearls, there is no digging into the earth or stripping of the world’s surfaces. Pearls come from a living creature–the only gemstone in the world to be formed in such a manner. Therefore, you can purchase pearls without worrying about contributing to the destruction of the environment.
Further, pearls not only do not harm the earth–pearl farming can actually improve the environment. The reason behind this is admittedly a self-serving one. Oysters need healthy environments in order to create healthy pearls. So, if a pearl farmer does not do his best to preserve the environment in which he maintains his oysters, his pearl crop will be worthless. That is a big reason why pearl farmers and vendors around the world have advocated for measures which protect our waters–if the waters become or stay polluted, then their businesses will inevitably fail. By supporting pearl farming, you are supporting an industry that benefits aquatic environments around the world.
Finally, understanding the way that pearls are created and harvested around the world helps to explain why they are such precious gifts. Unlike diamonds, pearls are soft, and their nacre is susceptible to the elements. While you might be able to toss other pieces into a jewelry box and forget about them, pearls require special care to preserve their shape and to prevent them from being chipped or broken. This is important information to know because beautiful gemstones–which pearls most certainly are–should be passed on through generations. This requires taking proper care of them. Now that you know what goes into the creation and growth of a pearl, the “caretaking” suggestions on this and other pearl expert sources should make more sense.
Those caretaking suggestions focus on one primary rule–pearls should be the last things you put on and the first things that you take off. Pearls should not be present when applying cosmetics, spraying perfume, etc. The wearer should be completely ready to walk out the door before adorning him or herself with pearls. And at the end of the day, pearls should come off first in order to prevent them from being knocked against one another (which can cause chipping) or accidentally broken against a zipper, for example. Place pearls in a soft-lined box and never use harsh chemicals to clean them (or use harsh chemicals to clean anything while wearing pearls, actually).
Now that you know how pearls are formed, you can start to understand why and how various types, sizes, and colors of pearls exist. To help you understand more about the various pearl classifications, here is some additional information:
Natural pearls – Natural pearls are made 100% by nature. This refers to the process before humans began pearl farming. True, natural pearls are nearly nonexistent on today’s market.
Cultured pearls – These are the pearls grown with the assistance of pearl farmers. Cultured pearls make up more than 99% of today’s market. They are identical to natural pearls in virtually every way.
Imitation pearls – Contrary to popular belief, cultured pearls are NOT imitation pearls. Cultured pearls are created by oysters and mussels, just like natural pearls. They are formed with an irritant at the center and a nacre coating, just like natural pearls. Imitation pearls, on the other hand, are not pearls at all. They do not come from the sea, and they are not grown inside living creatures. They are usually composed of glass or plastic, as opposed to nacre. No reputable jewelry vendor or manufacturer would ever sell imitation pearls without clearly presenting them as such to potential buyers.
Freshwater pearls – Freshwater pearls are exactly what they sound like: pearls formed in fresh water sources as opposed to being formed in the ocean. Freshwater pearls are created by mollusks, while pearls formed in the ocean come from oysters. Both creatures create pearls as part of their natural self-protection processes.
Akoya pearls – Akoya pearls are a saltwater pearl named after the type of oyster which produces them (called, unsurprisingly, the Akoya oyster). Most Akoyas come from Japanese pearl farms, and Akoyas are the most popular type of pearl around the world. Akoyas were the first type of pearl to be cultured, which speaks to this gemstone’s popularity and the world’s desire to possess it. When you think of the classic, round, white pearl, you are likely envisioning an Akoya.
South Sea pearls – South Sea pearls are the true treasures of the pearl world. They come from the Pinctada maxima oyster, and they are much larger and more lustrous than other pearl varietals. Because larger pearls take longer to form, fewer South Sea crops can be harvested in the amount of time spent cultivating other types of oysters, making South Sea pearls among the most valuable (and most expensive) in the world.
Tahitian pearls – Also known as black pearls, Tahitian pearls are formed by the black-lipped oyster Pinctada margaritifera. They derive their name from the fact that they are found primarily around the islands of French Polynesia and Tahiti. Tahitian pearls are most often a dark green color which can appear black (hence, their common name).
Which type of pearl is best?
There is, of course, no correct answer to this question. Pearls are as varied as pearl wearers themselves. In addition to coming in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, the pearls themselves can be incorporated into a number of jewelry types which display their attributes in a number of ways. Pearl strands, for example, are notable due to their incorporation of a number of pearls which match each other in color, size, and shape (unless, of course, you choose a strand which incorporates different colors of pearls–a mixture which can be created to a beautiful effect). Pendants, on the other hand, are a great way to display a single or small number of pearls in order to create a central focal point. In addition to necklaces, pearls are made into earrings, bracelets, rings, and basically any other type of jewelry on the market. There is quite literally an endless number of different ways and types of pearls that can be incorporated into jewelry from which you can choose. The type of pearl which will suit you best is a question only you can answer.
Pearls have been, and continue to be, loved by people all over the world. For example, they are a popular choice among brides and other members of wedding parties and have recently seen a rise in popularity for incorporation into engagement rings. Educating yourself about the ways that pearls are made, sold, and cared for puts you in the best position possible for beginning your journey into the world of pearl ownership.
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