Why Pearls Make A Great Gift
A pearl is a hard object produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk. Just like the shell of a clam, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form, which has been deposited in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes (baroque pearls) occur. The finest quality natural pearls have been highly valued as gemstones and objects of beauty for many centuries. Because of this, pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable.
The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously in the wild, but are extremely rare. These wild pearls are referred to as natural pearls. Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold. Imitation pearls are also widely sold in inexpensive jewelry, but the quality of their iridescence is usually very poor and is easily distinguished from that of genuine pearls. Pearls have been harvested and cultivated primarily for use in jewelry, but in the past were also used to adorn clothing. They have also been crushed and used in cosmetics, medicines and paint formulations.
Whether wild or cultured, gem-quality pearls are almost always nacreous and iridescent, like the interior of the shell that produces them. However, almost all species of shelled mollusks are capable of producing pearls (formally referred to as “calcareous concretions” by some sources) of lesser shine or less spherical shape. Although these may also be legitimately referred to as “pearls” by gemological labs and also under U.S. Federal Trade Commission rules, and are formed in the same way, most of them have no value except as curiosities.
The English word pearl comes from the French perle, originally from the Latin perna meaning leg, after the ham- or mutton leg-shaped bivalve.
Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls
Freshwater and saltwater pearls may sometimes look quite similar, but they come from different sources.
Freshwater pearls form in various species of freshwater mussels, family Unionidae, which live in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water. These freshwater pearl mussels occur not only in hotter climates, but also in colder more temperate areas such as Scotland (where they are protected under law). Most freshwater cultured pearls sold today come from China.
Saltwater pearls grow within pearl oysters, family Pteriidae, which live in oceans. Saltwater pearl oysters are usually cultivated in protected lagoons or volcanic atolls.
Creation of a pearl
Pearls are formed inside the shell of certain mollusks as a defence mechanism against a potentially threatening irritant such as a parasite inside the shell, or an attack from outside that injures the mantle tissue. The mollusk creates a pearl sac to seal off the irritation. Pearls are commonly viewed by scientists as a by-product of an adaptive immune system-like function.
The mollusk’s mantle (protective membrane) deposits layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the mineral aragonite or a mixture of aragonite and calcite (polymorphs with the same chemical formula, but different crystal structures) held together by an organic horn-like compound called conchiolin. The combination of aragonite and conchiolin is called nacre, which makes up mother-of-pearl. The commonly held belief that a grain of sand acts as the irritant is in fact rarely the case. Typical stimuli include organic material, parasites, or even damage that displaces mantle tissue to another part of the mollusk’s body. These small particles or organisms gain entry when the shell valves are open for feeding or respiration. In cultured pearls, the irritant is typically an introduced piece of the mantle epithelium, with or without a spherical bead (beaded or beadless cultured pearls).
Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin. It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare.
Typically, the build-up of a natural pearl consists of a brown central zone formed by columnar calcium carbonate (usually calcite, sometimes columnar aragonite) and a yellowish to white outer zone consisting of nacre (tabular aragonite). In a pearl cross-section such as the diagram, these two different materials can be seen. The presence of columnar calcium carbonate rich in organic material indicates juvenile mantle tissue that formed during the early stage of pearl development. Displaced living cells with a well-defined task may continue to perform their function in their new location, often resulting in a cyst. Such displacement may occur via an injury. The fragile rim of the shell is exposed and is prone to damage and injury. Crabs, other predators and parasites such as worm larvae may produce traumatic attacks and cause injuries in which some external mantle tissue cells are disconnected from their layer. Embedded in the conjunctive tissue of the mantle, these cells may survive and form a small pocket in which they continue to secrete calcium carbonate, their natural product. The pocket is called a pearl sac, and grows with time by cell division; in this way the pearl grows also. The juvenile mantle tissue cells, according to their stage of growth, secrete columnar calcium carbonate from pearl sac’s inner surface. In time, the pearl sac’s external mantle cells proceed to the formation of tabular aragonite. When the transition to nacre secretion occurs, the brown pebble becomes covered with a nacreous coating. During this process, the pearl sac seems to travel into the shell; however, the sac actually stays in its original relative position the mantle tissue while the shell itself grows. After a couple of years, a pearl forms and the shell may be found by a lucky pearl fisher.
Cultured pearls are the response of the shell to a tissue implant. A tiny piece of mantle tissue (called a graft) from a donor shell is transplanted into a recipient shell, causing a pearl sac to form into which the tissue precipitates calcium carbonate. There are a number of methods for producing cultured pearls: using freshwater or seawater shells, transplanting the graft into the mantle or into the gonad, and adding a spherical bead as a nucleus. Most saltwater cultured pearls are grown with beads. Tradenames of cultured pearls are Akoya, white or golden South sea, and black Tahitian. Most beadless cultured pearls are mantle-grown in freshwater shells in China, and are known as freshwater cultured pearls.
Cultured pearls can be distinguished from natural pearls by X-ray examination. Nucleated cultured pearls are often ‘preformed’ as they tend to follow the shape of the implanted shell bead nucleus. After a bead is inserted into the oyster, it secretes a few layers of nacre around the bead; the resulting cultured pearl can then be harvested in as few as six months.
When a cultured pearl with a bead nucleas is X-rayed, it reveals a different structure to that of a natural pearl (see diagram). A beaded cultured pearl shows a solid center with no concentric growth rings, whereas a natural pearl shows a series of concentric growth rings. A beadless cultured pearl (whether of freshwater or saltwater origin) may show growth rings, but also a complex central cavity, witness of the first precipitation of the young pearl sac.
A well-equipped gem testing laboratory can distinguish natural pearls from cultured pearls by using gemological X-ray equipment to examine the center of a pearl. With X-rays it is possible to see the growth rings of the pearl, where the layers of calcium carbonate are separated by thin layers of conchiolin. The differentiation of natural pearls from non-beaded cultured pearls can be very difficult without the use of this X-ray technique.
Natural and cultured pearls can be distinguished from imitation pearls using a microscope. Another method of testing for imitations is to rub two pearls against each other. Imitation pearls are completely smooth, but natural and cultured pearls are composed of nacre platelets, making both feel slightly gritty.
Value of a natural pearl
Fine quality natural pearls are very rare jewels. Their values are determined similarly to those of other precious gems, according to size, shape, color, quality of surface, orient and luster.
Single natural pearls are often sold as collectors’ items, or set as centerpieces in unique jewelry. Very few matched strands of natural pearls exist, and those that do often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (In 1917, jeweler Pierre Cartier purchased the Fifth Avenue mansion that is now the New York Cartier store in exchange for a matched double strand of natural pearls Cartier had been collecting for years; at the time, it was valued at $1 million USD.)
The Great Depression slashed the values of natural pearls, but there is no doubt this had been some time coming. The introduction and advance of the cultured pearl hit the pearl industry hard. Pearl dealers publicly disputed the authenticity of these new cultured products, and left many consumers uneasy and confused about their much lower prices. Essentially, the controversy damaged the images of both natural and cultured pearls. By the 1950s, when every woman could own her own cultured pearl necklace, natural pearls were reduced to a small, exclusive niche in the pearl industry.
Origin of a natural pearl
Previously, natural pearls were found in many parts of the world. Present day natural pearling is confined mostly to seas off Bahrain. Australia also has one of the world’s last remaining fleets of pearl diving ships. Australian pearl divers dive for south sea pearl oysters to be used in the cultured south sea pearl industry. The catch of pearl oysters is similar to the numbers of oysters taken during the natural pearl days. Hence significant numbers of natural pearls are still found in the Australian Indian Ocean waters from wild oysters. X-ray examination is required to positively verify natural pearls found today.
Types of cultured pearls
Keshi pearls, although they often occur by chance, are not considered natural. They are a byproduct of the culturing process, and hence do not happen without human intervention. They are quite small, typically only a few millimeters. Keshi pearls are produced by many different types of marine mollusks and freshwater mussels in China. Keshi pearls are actually a mistake in the cultured pearl seeding process. In seeding the cultured pearl, a piece of mantle muscle from a sacrificed oyster is placed with a bead of mother of pearl within the oyster. If the piece of mantle should slip off the bead, a pearl forms of baroque shape about the mantle piece which is entirely nacre. Therefore, a Keshi pearl could be considered superior to cultured pearls with a mother of pearl bead center. In the cultured pearl industry, the resources used to create a mistaken all nacre baroque pearl is a drain on the production of round cultured pearls. Therefore, they are trying to improve culturing technique so that keshi pearls do not occur. All nacre pearls may one day be limited to natural found pearls. Today many “keshi” pearls are actually intentional, with post-harvest shells returned to the water to regenerate a pearl in the existing pearl sac.
Tahitian pearls, frequently referred to as black pearls, are highly valued because of their rarity; the culturing process for them dictates a smaller volume output and they can never be mass-produced because, in common with most sea pearls, the oyster can only be nucleated with one pearl at a time, while freshwater mussels are capable of multiple pearl implants. Before the days of cultured pearls, black pearls were rare and highly valued for the simple reason that white pearl oysters rarely produced naturally black pearls, and black pearl oysters rarely produced any natural pearls at all.
Since the development of pearl culture technology, the black pearl oysters Pinctada margaritifera found in Tahiti and many other Pacific islands including the Cook Islands and Fiji are being extensively used for producing cultured pearls. The rarity of the black cultured pearl is now a “comparative” issue. The black cultured pearl is rare when compared to Chinese freshwater cultured pearls, and Japanese and Chinese akoya cultured pearls, and is more valuable than these pearls. However, it is more abundant than the South Sea pearl, which is more valuable than the black cultured pearl. This is simply because the black pearl oyster Pinctada margaritifera is far more abundant than the elusive, rare, and larger south sea pearl oyster Pinctada maxima, which cannot be found in lagoons, but which must be dived for in a rare number of deep ocean habitats or grown in hatcheries.
Black pearls are very rarely black: they are usually shades of green, purple, aubergine, blue, grey, silver or peacock (a mix of several shades, like a peacock’s feather).
Black cultured pearls from the black pearl oyster – Pinctada margaritifera – are not South Sea pearls, although they are often mistakenly described as black South Sea pearls. In the absence of an official definition for the pearl from the black oyster, these pearls are usually referred to as “black pearls”.
The correct definition of a South Sea pearl – as described by CIBJO and GIA – is a pearl produced by the Pinctada maxima pearl oyster. South Sea pearls are the color of their host Pinctada maxima oyster – and can be white, silver, pink, gold, cream, and any combination of these basic colors, including overtones of the various colors of the rainbow displayed in the pearl nacre of the oyster shell itself.
South Sea pearls are the largest and rarest of the cultured pearls – making them the most valuable. Prized for their exquisitely beautiful ‘orient‘ or lustre, South Sea pearls are now farmed in various parts of the world where the Pinctada maxima oysters can be found, with the finest South Sea pearls being produced by Paspaley along the remote coastline of North-Western Australia. White and silver colored South Sea pearls tend to come from the Broome area of Australia, while golden colored ones are more prevalent in the Philippines and Indonesia.
A farm in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, is culturing pearls from the black lipped Pinctada mazatlanica oysters and the rainbow lipped Pteria sterna oysters. Also called Concha Nácar, the pearls from these rainbow lipped oysters fluoresce red under ultraviolet light.
Pearls from other species
Biologically speaking, under the right set of circumstances, almost any shelled mollusk can produce some kind of pearl, however, most of these molluskan pearls have no luster or iridescence. The great majority of mollusk species produce pearls which are not attractive, and are sometimes not even very durable, such that they usually have no value at all, except perhaps to a scientist or collector, or as a curiosity. These objects used to be referred to as “calcareous concretions” by some gemologists, even though a malacologist would still consider them to be pearls. Valueless pearls of this type are sometimes found in edible mussels, edible oysters, escargot snails, and so on. The GIA and CIBJO now simply use the term ‘pearl’ (or, where appropriate, the more descriptive term ‘non-nacreous pearl’) when referring to such items and, under Federal Trade Commission rules, various mollusk pearls may be referred to as ‘pearls’, without qualification.
A few species produce pearls that can be of interest as gemstones. These species include the bailer shell Melo, the giant clam Tridacna, various scallop species, Pen shells Pinna, and the Haliotis iris species of abalone. Abalone, or Pāua are Mabe pearls unique to New Zealand waters and are commonly referred to as ‘Blue Pearls’. They are admired for their incredible luster and naturally bright vibrant colors that are often compared to Opal. Another example is the conch pearl (sometimes referred to simply as the ‘pink pearl’), which is found very rarely growing between the mantle and the shell of the queen conch or pink conch, Strombus gigas, a large sea snail or marine gastropod from the Caribbean Sea. These pearls, which are often pink in color, are a by-product of the conch fishing industry, and the best of them display a shimmering optical effect related to chatoyance known as ‘flame structure’.
Somewhat similar gastropod pearls, this time more orange in hue, are (again very rarely) found in the horse conch Pleuroploca gigantea.
The largest pearl known was found in the Philippines in 1934 and is known as the Pearl of Lao Tzu. It is a naturally-occurring, non-nacreous, calcareous concretion (pearl) from a giant clam. Because it did not grow in a pearl oyster it is not pearly; instead the surface is glossy like porcelain. Other pearls from giant clams are known to exist, but this is a particularly large one, weighing 14 lb (6.4 kg).
For many cultured pearl dealers and wholesalers, the preferred weight measure used for loose pearls and pearl strands is the momme. Momme is a weight measure used by the Japanese for centuries. Today, momme weight is still the standard unit of measure used by most pearl dealers to communicate with pearl producers and wholesalers. One momme corresponds to 1/1000 kan. Reluctant to give up tradition, in 1891, the Japanese government formalized the kan measure as being exactly 3.75 kilograms or 8.28 pounds. Hence, 1 momme = 3.75 grams or 3750 milligrams.
In the United States, during the 19th and 20th centuries, through trade with Japan in silk cloth the momme became a unit indicating the quality of silk cloth.
Though millimeter size range is typically the first factor in determining a cultured pearl necklace’s value, the momme weight of pearl necklace will allow the buyer to quickly determine if the necklace is properly proportioned. This is especially true when comparing the larger south sea and Tahitian pearl necklaces.
Pearls in jewelry
The value of the pearls in jewelry is determined by a combination of the luster, color, size, lack of surface flaw and symmetry that are appropriate for the type of pearl under consideration. Among those attributes, luster is the most important differentiator of pearl quality according to jewelers.
All factors being equal, however, the larger the pearl the more valuable it is. Large, perfectly round pearls are rare and highly valued. Teardrop-shaped pearls are often used in pendants.
Pearls come in eight basic shapes: round, semi-round, button, drop, pear, oval, baroque, and circled. Perfectly round pearls are the rarest and most valuable shape. Semi-rounds are also used in necklaces or in pieces where the shape of the pearl can be disguised to look like it is a perfectly round pearl. Button pearls are like a slightly flattened round pearl and can also make a necklace, but are more often used in single pendants or earrings where the back half of the pearl is covered, making it look like a larger, rounder pearl.
Drop and pear shaped pearls are sometimes referred to as teardrop pearls and are most often seen in earrings, pendants, or as a center pearl in a necklace. Baroque pearls have a different appeal; they are often highly irregular with unique and interesting shapes. They are also commonly seen in necklaces. Circled pearls are characterized by concentric ridges, or rings, around the body of the pearl.
In general, cultured pearls are less valuable than natural pearls, whereas imitation pearls have almost no value. One way that jewelers can determine whether a pearl is cultured or natural is to have a gemlab perform an X-ray examination of the pearl. If X-rays reveals a nucleus, the pearl is likely a bead-nucleated saltwater pearl. If no nucleus is present, but irregular and small dark inner spots indicating a cavity are visible, combined with concentric rings of organic substance, the pearl is likely a cultured freshwater. Cultured freshwater pearls can often be confused for natural pearls which present as homogeneous pictures which continuously darken toward the surface of the pearl. Natural pearls will often show larger cavities where organic matter has dried out and decomposed.
Lengths of pearl necklaces
There is a special vocabulary used to describe the length of pearl necklaces. While most other necklaces are simply referred to by their physical measurement, pearl necklaces are named by how low they hang when worn around the neck. A collar, measuring 10 to 13 inches or 25 to 33 cm in length, sits directly against the throat and does not hang down the neck at all; collars are often made up of multiple strands of pearls. Pearl chokers, measuring 14 to 16 inches or 35 to 41 cm in length, nestle just at the base of the neck. A strand called a princess length, measuring 17 to 19 inches or 43 to 48 cm in length, comes down to or just below the collarbone. A matinee length, measuring 20 to 24 inches or 50 to 60 cm in length, falls just above the breasts. An opera length, measuring 28 to 35 inches or 70 to 90 cm in length, will be long enough to reach the breastbone or sternum of the wearer; and longer still, a pearl rope, measuring more than 45 inches or 115 cm in length, is any length that falls down farther than an opera.
Necklaces can also be classified as uniform, or graduated. In a uniform strand of pearls, all pearls are classified as the same size, but actually fall in a range. A uniform strand of akoya pearls, for example, will measure within 0.5 mm. So a strand will never be 7 mm, but will be 6.5–7 mm. Freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls all measure to a full millimeter when considered uniform.
A graduated strand of pearls most often has at least 3 mm of differentiation from the ends to the center of the necklace. Popularized in the United States during the 1950s by the GIs bringing strands of cultured akoya pearls home from Japan, a 3.5 momme, 3 mm to 7 mm graduated strand was much more affordable than a uniform strand because most of the pearls were small.
Colors of Pearls
Earrings and necklaces can also be classified on the grade of the color of the pearl. While white, and more recently black, saltwater pearls are by far the most popular, other color tints can be found on pearls from the oceans. Pink, blue, champagne, green, black and even purple saltwater pearls can be encountered, but to collect enough of these rare colors to form a complete string of the same size and same shade can take years.