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For the Love of Pearls

by Mary W. Bailey

They shimmer and glow with an inner radiance that catches our eye and our imagination, making us ponder their origin and their beauty. Holding one in one's hand is akin to having the moon resting in your palm with all its secrets waiting to be revealed. Long before the creation of cultured pearls, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were exclusively reserved for the noble and very rich. Evidence of pearls being a treasured item has been depicted in mosaic panels, paintings and in the myths and legends that abound with their discovery.

No matter the origin, the reverence for pearls spread across continents and their existence dates back as far as man has recorded his history and events. If one has a love of pearls, it is well worth the time to research and learn about the history and myths surrounding this organic gemstone and its impact on history.

When one thinks of pearls, it is automatic to envision oysters as the source for pearls. However, pearls may come from a variety of sources besides oysters, such as mussels and conchs; plus for naturally created pearls, their environments may be either salt or fresh water. The use of the classification of freshwater or saltwater pearls is now applied to cultured pearls as well, and the opportunity to actually hold or own a true "natural" pearl is rare because the cultured pearl is now dominant in the market place.

What is the difference between a natural and a cultured pearl? They both form under similar conditions with the only true distinction being that man has stepped in and "jump started" the process by systematically introducing an irritant into the mollusk, thus stimulating the mollusk to begin creating a pearl.

Once introduced to the oyster or mussel, the process of coating around the intruder begins with the secretion of nacre (NAY-kur) from special cells that exist in the mantle of the oyster or mussel. Japan was the mainstay of cultured pearls for many decades, but China has since eclipsed Japan and is now regarded as one of the world's largest producers of both saltwater and freshwater pearls. Not to be ignored are the South Sea and Tahitian pearls which also play a major role in the pearl market because of their size and exciting range of colors.

Types of Pearls

Pearl Chart

Akoya Pearls

A pearl from the Akoya oyster. Cultured saltwater pearls are bead-nucleated and thus have a perfectly round bead within. The oyster originates in China but is widely used today to culture pearls in China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Sri Lanka. China is currently the major producer of Akoya pearls.
Akoya pearls have the strongest luster in all pearls. Their body colors range from light pink to white to creamy.

Biwa Pearls
The name originally associated with Japanese freshwater pearls from Lake Biwa located near Kyoto, Japan. The all-nacre Biwa pearls formed in colors unseen in saltwater pearls with appealing lustre and luminescent depth that rivaled naturals. The name was later adopted to call all fresh water pearls "biwa" and such references are illegal in the U.S. unless the origin of said pearls is actually from Lake Biwa.
Blister Pearl
Blister pearls are semi-spherical pearls attached to the interior surface shell of a mollusk shell.
Baroque Pearl

Baroque pearls are pearls that are not round and have an undefined shape. Freshwater pearls are commonly baroque because freshwater pearls are mantle-tissue nucleated instead of bead nucleated, so the pearls are never round. The most valued of baroque pearls are the South Sea and Tahitian pearls.

Black Pearls
Some people use the term "black pearl" to refer to any dark colored pearl, dyed or natural. Tahitian pearls are a natural black color having a luster that has a metallic shine. But not all Tahitian pearls are black. They can range in color from gray, green, blue, lavender, brown, black, and with iridescence, resemble the coloring of a peacock feather.
Button Pearls
A flat, round button-shaped pearl. They are often used in stud earrings, where the flattest side of the pearl can be attached to the setting.
Dome Pearls

A solid blister pearl grown around a mother-of-pearl nucleus of a mollusk shell. When removed from the inside of the mollusk, part of the shell remains, making it resemble a mabe pearl with its domed shape but is much more interesting in appearance and is more durable.

Drop Pearls
Drop pearls are shaped like a teardrop or a pear. They can be short and fat or elongated in shape.
Faux Pearl
A false pearl bead manufactured by coating the inside of a hollow glass sphere or the outside of a solid glass or plastic sphere with a pearlescent coating which is sometimes pearl powder.
Glass Pearls
The beads are covered with as many as forty coats of pearl essence and hand polished between each coat.
Half Pearl
A sawed whole pearl, usually done to remove a blemish from part of a whole pearl.
Keshi Pearls
"keishi" is a Japanese word meaning something as tiny as you can imagine. Used today to refer to all-nacre baroque pearls produced when something goes wrong in the process of culturing. South Sea keshi pearls can be very large; Japanese keshi pearls can be miniscule.
Mabe Pearl
A blister pearl which has had the pearl nucleus removed and filled, usually with wax and the opening then covered with a mother-of-pearl backing. Mabe pearls are not as durable as blister pearls.
Seed Pearls
Tiny natural pearls weighing under 1/4 grain, usually less than 2MM in diameter.
South Sea Pearls
Is any saltwater pearl found between Philippines and Indonesia and Australia and across to French Polynesia. South Sea also refers to large yellow or white pearls cultured in the Silver-Lip, Yellow-Lip or Gold-Lip oyster.

A variety of factors go into the grading and pricing of pearls. Each type of pearl has its own characteristics due to the specific forming condition that it was created in. Pearls are normally classified by origin, then graded by types and then subject to luster, nacre thickness, surface quality, size, color and shape. Because of this and because of the variety of pearl types, the grading system does not follow a definite set of rules. Grading is relative to the best attainable quality for a certain type of pearl as opposed to a set standard across the board.

Pearl Care

Because pearls are considered an "organic" gemstone, they do require more care than a gemstone such as a diamond would.

Pearls should be protected both during wearing them and while storing them. They are susceptible to reacting with the acids and oils in our skin, the perfume we may wear, as well as the makeup we may use. Because of this it is an adopted rule that your pearls are the last thing you don and the first thing you remove, to avoid exposure to substances that could damage their lustre.

After wearing, take the time to clean your pearls with a soft cloth that has been dampened in clean cool water, followed by rubbing with a dry cloth. The use of distilled water is advised because there is a lack of mineral substances which can deposit on the surface of pearls and weaken the pearl luster. When not worn for extended periods, at regular intervals the pearls should be wiped with a soft cloth dampened in clean cool water and carefully rubbed dry. You can use a soft bristled toothbrush to remove stubborn grime from the surface of the pearls as long as you use care and don't scrub too hard.

Store your pearls in jewelry pouches, cloth bags, or a jewelry box. Keep items separated to avoid scratching. Pearls contain 2-4% water. Store them in a cool place and if possible, adding a small damp piece of linen in the bag with them will help them maintain their moisture level to help prevent them from drying out, cracking and turning brittle. Never store pearls in a plastic bag or plastic container as the plastic could very well contain chemicals that could react badly with the pearls causing the surface of the pearl to deteriorate.

Fading can occur in pearls when exposed to strong lights for extended time periods, such as strong natural and artificial light, or to strong lighting in a display case. Avoid leaving pearls laying out on a dresser or table exposed to such lighting for any length of time.