I don’t think there is a more difficult gem to purchase than a pearl.
Freshwater or saltwater, the vast range of names, styles, colours & types of pearls can give even the most knowledgeable person a headache. In my latest blog post I hope to cover some of the basics when buying Pearls, things to watch out for & general pearl information. Learning about the types of pearls is important when adding items to your Jewellery collection otherwise you could make an expensive mistake.
known as the queen of gems, Pearls have been coverted, prized and collected for more than 4000 years, giving them the title of the world's oldest gem. For centuries, pearls have been a symbol of beauty and purity. Today, they are regarded as both classic and contemporary, coming in many more fashionable styles than your grandmother’s traditional strand of pearls.
Pearls have long been treasured and highly valued in many cultures throughout history. As far back as 2300 BC, Chinese records indicate that pearls were the prized possessions of (and gifts to) royalty. In India, ancient Hindu texts repeatedly refer to pearls, stating in one place that the god Krishna discovered the first pearl. In ancient Egypt, mother-of-pearl was used for decorative purposes as far back as 4000 BC, although the use of actual pearls did not come until much later - estimated to be around the 5th century
Unlike gemstones that are mined from the earth, a living organism produces a pearl and, in fact, their very existence could be called a freak of nature. A pearl is formed when an irritant, such as a parasite or piece of shell, becomes accidentally lodged in an oyster's soft inner body, causing it to secrete a crystalline substance called nacre, which builds up around the irritant in layers until a pearl is formed. Cultured pearls are formed through the same process, the only difference being that the irritant is implanted in the oyster rather than entering it by chance.
Natural pearls are extremely rare these days and beyond the budget of the average consumer. Historically, many were found in the Persian Gulf; unfortunately, today, most have already been harvested. You may be able to purchase small, natural pearls, but they will be costly. In 1917, jeweller 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 US$1 million.
Cultured pearls are grown in pearl farms. The mollusks are raised until they are old enough to accept the mother-of-pearl bead nucleus. Through a delicate surgical procedure, the technician implants the bead and then the mollusks are returned to the water and cared for while the pearl forms.
Not all produce a pearl, and not all the pearls are High enough quality for jewellery. Over 10,000 pearls may be sorted before a 16” single strand of beautifully matched pearls can be assembled.
Pearls can be found in saltwater and in freshwater. There are also different types of mollusks that produce very different looking pearls.
If you are looking for a classic strand of round, white pearls, you are probably looking for a strand of akoya pearls.
Akoya pearls are the most popular type of saltwater pearls, Pinctada fucata martensii, and are sought after for their round shape. Although rare baroque shapes and natural colors like silver-blue and gold do exist, akoya pearls are best known for their perfectly round shape and sharp, reflective luster. Most are cultured with natural colors ranging from light pink, white or yellowish. For nearly 100 years, akoya pearls grown off the coast of Japan have been the classic pearl of choice. Japan cultures most akoya pearls over 7mm, while smaller sizes are also cultured in China, Korea, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka.
Freshwater Pearls could be called the fashion forward pearl. These are the most affordable pearls sold today, freshwater pearls are known for their baroque shapes, white and pastel body colors and they have a softer luster than the akoya pearl (except in the case of rare metallics). With their natural pastel colors and shapes that range from perfectly round to free-form baroque, freshwater pearls offer the widest range of options and are perfect for high fashion & modern sleek designs that are everything but traditional. The most common sizes range from 5 mm to 12 mm, but recent advances have led to the development of round and baroque pearls as large as 20 mm.
If you are looking for an affordable piece or something more fashion-forward with unique combinations of colors and shapes then you definitely should shop for freshwater pearls.
I absolutely love the dark allure & exotic colourings of Tahitian pearls. The pearls grown in French Polynesia are the only naturally occurring dark pearls. Tahiti holds itself to strict exporting laws which only allow a certain quality of cultured pearls to leave their country, assuring you that you have an excellent piece of fine jewellery. Although often referred to as black, Tahitian pearls come in a rainbow of exotic colors. Round Tahitian pearls are really quite rare but other classic shapes like drops, baroques and ovals are highly-sought and still considered very valuable.
When measured perpendicular to the drill hole, most Tahitians range in size from 8 mm to 15 mm regardless of shape.
If you are looking for a naturally dark pearls that go well with almost any style, Tahitian pearls may be your best choice. Although slightly more expensive than Akoya or freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls hold their value much better and are perfect for creating heirloom or investment pieces.
South sea pearls are the Rolls Royce of pearls, they have to be amongst the most renowned of all pearls. South sea pearls are usually large, white, yellow or golden pearls grown by the Pinctada maxima oyster which lives in the South Seas, also called silver-lip or yellow-lip oyster. South Sea Pearls can also mean any saltwater pearl found from the Philippines and Indonesia down to Australia and across to French Polynesia. These pearls are often 9-19mm in size with the most common sizes being between 10mm to 14mm.
Because of their tremendous size, perfectly round South Sea pearls are really quite rare although other more common shapes such as pear, drops, baroques and ovals are still considered to be very valuable.
If you looking for a statement piece of jewellery with large pearls, South Sea may be the way to go as they are the largest saltwater grown today.
Conch pearls are extremely rare with on average only 1 found in every 10,000 Conchs, leading to a retail price of over £2000 per carat in high quality pearls.
The great conch (Strombus gigas) is found in the Caribbean and is actually a large marine snail. Conch pearls (pronounced "konk") contain no nacre, so technically they are not actually pearls at all. Instead, the gems are calcareous concretions, similar to kidney stones in humans. Conch pearls and nacreous pearls have the same chemical composition the only difference between them is their polycrystalline structures.
The principal determination of value for a conch pearl is its color as well as shape, size and flame vibrancy (Conch pearls often exhibit a flame-like pattern due to concentrically arranged calcium carbonate platelets) Although many tend to be orange, yellow, beige or ivory, enough are pink for these pearls to have been known as "pink pearls" in the trade since the early 1900’s. The most prized colors by collectors range anywhere from deep rose red, salmon orange to deep pink.
Some countries ban the taking of conchs because of depletion while other countries have quotas. I am torn with these enchantingly beautiful pearls, I adore their colours and the life that the flame effect brings to these gems but with only 1 in 10,000 conches producing a pearl the impact to nature & the Eco system is incredibly great, I’m not sure I could ethically wear freshly caught maiden pearls.
Striking blue pearls can be formed in the Paua mollusc, which is an Abalone variety. They are available in a broad spectrum of blue, although they come in other colours, such as golds, pinks, greens, reds, and violet. There is a chameleon quality to these stunning pearls with the light causing colours to change. It’s these colour changes that give each pearl its own distinctive character. Again, you are highly unlikely to find these pearls on the high street, so if you are planning on purchasing this type of pearl, do your research and find a specialist or reputable dealer or jeweller.
Kasumiga Pearls are types of pearls cultured in Lake Kasumiga, which is north of Toyko. Kasumiga is a trade mark protected name, but these pearls are also called Kasumi Pearls. They are cultured from the hybrid mussels Hyriopsis schlegelii X Hyriopsis cumingii and were introduced to the pearl market in 1990's in very limited qualities. They can range in color from gold to white to purple to pink. These large nucleated freshwater pearls measure from around 11-16 mm.
Melo Pearls occur naturally and incredibly rarely in a type of sea snail called bailer shells, melon shells or boat shells (melo melo) off Singapore and Malaysia and in the south China Sea. These large pearls, usually weighing 200 carats, com in orange, yellow or brownish colors with a wavy pattern. I know very little about this type of pearl & I’m looking forward to researching Melo pearls at a later date.
Another type of pearl I hadn’t come across are Keshi pearls. In Japanese, Keshi literally means “poppy seed”. It was used to depict diminutive seed-sized pearls originated as by-products of the pearl culturing method. Once the debris enters an oyster during the harvesting process, this oyster encloses the debris with nacre, thus producing keshi pearls. Some other shapes of keshi pearls are flat, rectangle, oval, or off round. These pearls arrive in different colours, such as white, rose, grey, black, and many more. Due to its broad nacre composition, they are extremely glossy and flickering. However, South Sea keshi pearl and Tahitian keshi pearl are the most popular varieties.
Im sure most people have come across blister pearls as these have been incredibly popular for the last decade or so set in large statement type silver jewellery. These types of pearls refer to a pearl that has gotten embedded in the mother of pearl shell, so it looks like a "blister." It can be cut out and mounted so the back, which has no nacre, doesn't show. In the 13th century, the Chinese were making buddha blister pearls by placing a small, flat, lead buddha inside an oyster and letting the oyster coat it with nacre. The resulting "pearly buddha" was used as a good luck talisman. Blister pearls can be cultured in certain shapes such as a heart, square or tear drop by gluing a plastic piece in these shapes against the inside of a shell.
Biwa pearls are another type of pearl you have probably come across. Lake Biwa is Japan's largest lake, therefore the types of pearls cultivated there were freshwater pearls. This is one of the first places where pearls were cultivated but unfortunately the lake is now very polluted. Because of the reputation of Biwa pearls, which were once of extremely high quality, dealers will still sometimes use the term “Biwa” to falsely impress buyers with the quality of the pearl, just do a quick search on any internet auction sight to see what I mean. Definitely a buyer beware purchase.
Another name you may have come across is Mikimoto Pearls. Mikimoto is actually a brand name & not a variety of pearl. The Mikimoto company only use top quality Akoya pearls, only the top 3-5% of pearls are chosen and used by Mikimoto Co. The company was started by Kokichi Mikimoto, the Japanese gentleman given credit for establishing the present world-wide cultured pearl business. A signature clasp will always be on a genuine Mikimoto piece, although the company also has lower quality lines, such as the Blue Lagoon line which are more affordable.
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery and that’s certainly true with the vast array of synthetic or man made pearls available on the open market.
One of the most famous brand names in imitation pearls has to be the Spanish registered company, Majorica Pearls, which has been trading since 1890.
Majorica pearls have a closer resemblance to natural pearls than any other type of imitation pearl (e.g. plastic beads).
Majorica pearls are not formed by mollusks or cultured but are man-made on solid glass balls coated with layers of pigmented and protective lacquers. They begin with a nuclei, which is a high density, dull glass with a specific weight, similar to that of a real pearl. These nuclei are then dipped into a special pearly liquid, hemage, an adhesive paste made of oil and ground up fish scales or mother-of-pearl for their iridescence.
The coated nuclei are then dried and polished by hand to remove imperfections such as bumps and blemishes. This coating process is repeated (around 30 times) until a multitude of fine layers is formed over the nuclei, building up the density and color uniformity. To assure durability, the formed, blended multiple layers are subjected to various gases and solutions that make them impervious to discoloration, chipping and peeling.
My personal favourite imitation pearl has to be Swarovski Pearls
The Swarovski pearl, also known as the Swarovski Crystal pearl, is an imitation pearl that is created by using a Swarovski crystal at the center rather than a plastic bead. Using crystals rather than plastic beads yield a surprisingly realistic imitation pearl. These simulated pearls are reasonably priced and come in a variety of sizes and colors. Realism without the high price is one of the major benefits of the Swarovski Their unparalleled harmonious and lustrous shimmer is achieved using a unique coating technology developed by Swarovski. It is the first production method in the world to combine the quality of a perfect crystal core with the exquisite beauty of a pearl coating. The innovative technology by Swarovski gives the pearl a mysterious glow, which appears to be radiating from within the pearl itself. The strictest quality controls help ensure the absolute flawlessness of each Crystal Pearl.
I have deliberately not gone into much detail around baroque pearls, faceted pearls or carved pearls as I feel these deserve a full blog post to themselves. I have listed below a few bullet points that might help further your knowledge when purchasing pearls.
* Baroque refers to any irregular shaped pearl.
* Button pearls are round with flat backs.
* Blister or mabe pearls aren’t true pearls. They are dome shapes, originally attached to the inside of the shell.
* Bombay refers to pearls with a cream body color with a rose overtone.
* Ceylon or Madras are white or cream pearls with fancy overtones of green, blue, or purple.
* Colored pearls have a pronounced body color.
* Conch pearls aren’t true pearls, although they always carry this name.
* Dust pearls are too small for use in jewelry. Usually, they’re less than 1 mm or 1/25 grains.
* Fancy pearls have two overtones, one rose, the other green or blue.
* French pearl is a misnomer for a piece of shell.
* Half or ¾ pearls have flat backs and are usually drilled.
* Hinge pearls are the actual hinges of the shell. They’re not true pearls.
* Imitation pearls are usually a coated glass bead. Most have a high luster, but not the depth of luster seen on high quality cultured pearls. It's possible to separate an imitation from a cultured or natural pearl. It can be a challenge, though, to determine if the pearl is cultured or natural. And, many pearls undergo treatments to either enhance their luster or alter their color. Since this treatment affects their value, you will want to obtain the educated advice of a professional jeweller if you intend on investing lot of money on a piece.
* Keshi is sometimes used to refer to almost any baroque pearl. However, in its strictest sense, it refers to pearls that form spontaneously during the culturing of South Sea pearls. They are all-nacre, non-nucleated pearls. They are essentially natural, though they’re found in farmed beds.
* La Paz pearls are from the coast off Baja California, Mexico.
* Mabe are blister pearls that are filled and glued to a shell backing.
* Maiden pearls are newly harvested.
* Mother of Pearl is the iridescent inner layer found in most seashells.
* Natural pearls are extremely rare. Historically, many were found in the Persian Gulf; unfortunately, today, most have already been harvested. You may be able to purchase small, natural pearls, but they will be costly.
* Oriental pearls are natural pearls from the Persian Gulf.
* Osmenda pearls aren’t pearls but cabochons cut from a chambered nautilus shell.
* Pink refers to any white or cream colored pearl with a rose overtone.
* Slugs are baroque pearls with poor luster.
* Seed pearls are less than 2mm or 1/4 grain. They’re usually asymmetrical or off-round in shape.
* Tridacna pearls aren’t true pearls, although they always carry this name.
As I said at the beginning of this blog, buying pearls can be an incredibly difficult process but follow your instincts, find a knowledgeable dealer or jeweller who you trust and feel comfortable with and the whole process will hopefully be plain sailing.
I hope you have enjoyed my latest blog post as much as I have enjoyed writing it, check out our range of pearl jewellery here
Twelve Silver Trees Jewellery
Sign up for our newsletter here