The Glorious Pearl: Learn About Pearls Before You Buy

by Jamie Smedley, Marketing Content Development Group, Exclusively for Fire Mountain Gems and BeadsĀ®

The pearl, with its celestial glow and mystery, is the only gemstone formed within a living creature and throughout history has been a symbol of wealth and sophistication. Discover the different types of pearls, what their enhancement codes mean and how to care for pearl strands.

Ancient Chinese legend tells how the moon holds the power to create pearls and Arabic legend says that pearls were formed when dewdrops filled with moonlight fell into the ocean and were swallowed by oysters.
The Glorious Pearl: Learn About Pearls Before You Buy

Natural vs. Cultured Pearls

A natural pearl actually begins as a foreign object, such as a piece of sand, caught inside an oyster's inner body. The oyster goes into defensive action and secretes a substance called nacre around this foreign object (irritant) to protect itself. The oyster will continue to secrete nacre around the irritant, adding layer upon layer, to produce a pearl.

Natural pearls are extremely rare--in every 10,000 oysters, you might be lucky to find a single natural pearl. Just recently, a double-strand of 68 perfect natural pearls, known as the ''Baroda Pearls,'' was auctioned at Christie's Auction House for $7 million. Because of this scarcity, most pearls today are cultured pearls.

Kokichi Mikimoto patented the process of culturing pearls inside Akoya oysters in Japan in 1916. Once cultured pearls were developed and offered to the public in the 1920s, the "pearl craze" began--everyone wanted them, could afford them and wore them. Because the culturing process occurs over several years, a perfect balance of conditions is required for the aquaculture, or growth in water, of pearls. It takes more than 800,000 oyster hours to grow cultured pearls considered of "high quality." Japan dominated the industry until China became the leading producer of cultured pearls in the 1980s.

Cultured pearls are still actual pearls, sharing the same properties of natural pearls and growing organically inside of oysters in the same fashion as natural pearls. The only difference is a person carefully implants the irritant, a small piece of polished shell, in the oyster, rather than leaving it to chance. However, it's still up to nature to create the miraculous beauty of a pearl.

Cultured pearls can be from saltwater or freshwater mollusks. Freshwater pearls are formed in freshwater mussels that live in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water. Most freshwater cultured pearls sold today come from China. By contrast, saltwater pearls grow in oysters that live in the ocean, usually in protected lagoons, such as the Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian pearls.

Tahitian Black Pearls

A wonderful substitute for these rare and costly pearls can be found in large, Tahitian-colored Swarovski crystal ''pearls.''

Tahitian black pearls, also called South Sea Black pearls are grown in the waters of French Polynesia. They are cultivated from the black-lipped variety of the Pinctada maxima oyster, which reach a foot or more in diameter, producing large pearls. The oyster is very sensitive to the pearl culturing process, which makes the pearls very costly to produce. These dramatic pearls are traditionally called ''black,'' but their color can range from metallic silver to graphite with blue, purple or green overtones.

South Sea Pearls

A creative alternative to the extremely rare and giant pearls is the Swarovski crystal ''pearl'' in suitable colors.

South Sea pearls, also called White South Sea pearls, are saltwater pearls with a unique, satiny luster that comes from the rapidly deposited nacre and warm waters of the South Seas, located between the northern coast of Australia and southern coast of China. These waters are the native habitat of the large oyster, the Pinctada maxima. The oyster grows up to 12 inches in diameter, and can be nucleated with a much larger bead than other saltwater oysters, such as the Ayoka.

The two different varieties of Pinctada maxima are distinguished by the coloration of the outer edge of the interior: the silver lipped and the gold-lipped. The shell is known as mother-of-pearl, and is responsible for the coloration of the cultured pearls produced.

South Sea pearls also have a subtle array of colors, typically white, silver and golden, that are rare in other pearl types. The South Sea oyster will only accept one nucleation at a time and because of the rarity and sensitivity of this type of oyster, cultivation of these pearls is much more difficult, making them more expensive.

Freshwater Pearls

Beautiful examples of natural peach, natural mauve and bleached white potato-shaped freshwater pearls.

Freshwater cultured pearls come from freshwater mussels and appear in a wide variety of shapes and natural colors. They tend to be less expensive than saltwater pearls, making them a popular choice for younger people and jewelry designers. As freshwater pearls are solid nacre, they are also quite durable, resisting chipping, wear and degeneration.

Keshi Pearls

The word keshi means ''poppy seed'' in Japanese, and these pearls are often referred to as ''poppy seed pearls.'' Keshi pearls are formed when the oyster rejects and spits out the implanted nucleus before the culturing process is completed. Keshi may form in either saltwater or freshwater pearls and they are generally small in size with widely varying shapes because there is no nucleus to guide the process.

Keshi pearls come in myriad of colors, and tend to be high luster. Because the implanted nucleus of the pearl has been expelled by the oyster, the resulting pearl is 100 percent nacre, giving it a lustrous and shimmering surface quality. Even though Keshi pearls are solid nacre, they are not considered natural pearls because they are a bi-product of the culturing process, not a natural occurrence.

Pearl Enhancement

As a charter member of the AGTA (American Gem Trade Association), Fire Mountain Gems and Beads abides by AGTA's code of ethics, which is an even higher standard than the Federal Trade Commission's Guides for the Jewelry Industry on disclosing colored gemstone enhancements. Fire Mountain Gems and Beads discloses all enhancements of gems sold (with the exception of normal cutting and polishing) and the method of enhancement, if known.

Pearl Enhancements Codes:

Symbols for Specific Forms of Enhancements:
Natural (N) Stones which are not currently known to be enhanced.
Bleached The use of heat, light and/or other agents to lighten or remove a gemstone's color.
Dyed The introduction of color matter onto a pearl to give it new color, intensify present color or improve color uniformity.
Irradiated (R) The use of neutrons, gamma rays or beta particles (high energy electrons) to alter a pearl's color.

  Code Enhancement Method
Pearl (Bleached) B Bleached to improve color and appearance
Pearl (Dyed) D Dyed to give rose, blue or golden overtones or a chemical treatment combined with heat (also called electro-coated) to produce grey to black color

Pearl Care

Produced by a living organism, pearls require special care because they contain calcareous crystals that are sensitive to chemicals and acids. To care for your cultured or natural pearls, avoid using perfume, hairspray, abrasives, solvents, and nail polish removers while wearing them. Like your skin, cultured pearls contain water and may dehydrate and crack if exposed continuously to arid conditions. Pearls should be cleaned and re-strung annually if worn regularly. Do not use ultrasonic cleaning.

Additional Resources

Customer Comments

We would like to share some of the customer comments we received in response to the article "The Glorious Pearl: Learn About Pearls Before You Buy," as featured in an email newsletter. Please keep in mind that the comments expressed below are those of our customers and do not reflect the views of Fire Mountain Gems and Beads.

"The article on pearls was fascinating and very informative. Thanks!"
- Jan
"I really enjoyed reading your pearl article. I love pearls, especially the black Tahitian pearls with green overtones, but never really knew much about them. Thanks for the info."
- Sarah
"I found the article on pearls very informative.Thanks for the insight."
- Charlene
"I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed the article about pearls. A lot of the information I already knew, but there were a few things that I did not know.Thank you!"
- Mary
"The article about the pearls was very helpful! Thank you!"
- Candy
"I enjoyed the pearl article very much. I would like to see some information on different glass pearls, especially which brand is most durable."
- Nancy
"This was a very helpful article for someone who is just learning about pearls, well written and concise. Many thanks,"
- Mary
"No questions only to thank you for your wonderful articles, and information you have available to your customers. Thanks again."
- Cristina
"Excellent article on pearls. I have never understood the difference between natural and cultured. Very informative.Thanks!"
- Mitchelle
"Great article on pearls. I appreciate all the informational articles. Buyers frequently ask questions about the materials I use in my work, and I am glad I have your articles to refer to. Thanks."
- tnts designs
"I found the article to be well-written and informative. It answered many of my questions."
- Valerie

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