By: Diane Nicole Go, GIA Graduate Gemologist
Pearls are as mysterious as they come. Milky white with a luminescent luster that glows like the moon, they are a special form of treasure from the Earth’s lakes, seas and oceans. Many cultures associate pearls with the moon because of its spherical shape and luster, while the Chinese believed that it would protect the wearer from fire and fire-breathing dragons. On the other hand, Europeans believed that a pearl symbolized modesty, chastity and purity.
Pearl is one of the three birthstones for the month of June, along with Alexandrite and Moonstone. For married couples celebrating their third or thirtieth anniversary, a Pearl is often given as a gift.
A pearl is the culmination of the hard work and patience of both the mollusk that created it, the right environmental conditions, and the people who take care of these creatures. However, few people outside the gem industry realize the difficulty in a pearl’s journey from producer to consumer. Here’s the story about a pearl, and why it should be treated with special care like all other gems.
During the course of history, natural Pearls have always been sought after by people as symbols of wealth and status. Early Chinese records mentioned pearls in 2206 BC, while royal families and nobles all over Asia and Europe would often pass these down from generation to generation.
Natural Pearls were found in the Persian Gulf, the waters of Ceylon—now Sri Lanka— along with European and Chinese rivers and lakes during the discovery of the New World in 1492. Christopher Columbus’s discovery intensified demand for pearls in Europe, but these natural Pearl sources eventually declined due to overfishing, pearl culturing, the demand for plastic buttons, and oil drilling.
In order to remedy the diminishing supply, people turned to Pearl culturing. Hundreds of years ago, the Chinese began tried and tested many methods, but it was only during the beginning of the 20th century that Japanese pioneers were able to produce whole cultured Pearls. These were commercially important during the 1920s, and eventually diversified and spread to various countries around the world.
Pearls are well-loved gems of all time—both natural and cultured ones, of course. These occur in a wide variety of colors, with white and cream being the more familiar choice. Black, gray and silver tones are common as well, but these can occur in every color. The main color—bodycolor— is often modified by additional colors called overtones, which are usually pink (rosé), green, purple or blue. But what makes a Pearl special is that it showcases a phenomenon called orient— an iridescent or milky sheen.
Pearls form in the bodies of certain mollusk, usually around a microscopic irritant like a piece of sand or debris from the ocean. Usually human intervention isn’t needed in the process, but since Natural Pearls cannot meet the market demand with its dwindling supply, most Pearls are cultured.
Cultured Pearls are grown in captive-bred mollusks specifically for that purpose, but some still prefer to use wild mollusks. The process begins with the extraction of mantle tissue from one mollusk, which is then combined with a shell bead. This is then placed inside a host mollusk, where a sac will form around it, and if successful, will catalyze the gem’s growth. The host mollusk will then secrete nacre—the substance that gives pearl its sheen—in multiple layers until the Cultured Pearl is formed. Workers take care of these mollusks during the entire process, making sure that the water temperatures and the mollusk’s health are in optimal condition.
There are 4 types of cultured pearls:
1. Akoya: popular with many customers, this saltwater Cultured Pearl is produced in Japan and China. These pearls occur in the classic white color and can include silvery blue to subtle golden hues. The famous Rosé Cultured Pearls also fall under this category.
2. South Sea: a saltwater Cultured Pearl from the oceans of Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Often called as the “Queen of Pearls”, these Cultured Pearls are known for their luxurious white and golden hues. These usually have a thick layer of nacre, which gives this Cultured Pearl a satiny finish.
3. Tahitian: cultivated around the islands of French Polynesia, with Tahiti as the more familiar one, these saltwater Cultured Pearls come in white, gray and black colors, but can also appear in exotic colors like Peacock and Aubergine.
4. Freshwater: come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors. These Cultured Pearls are cultivated in freshwater lakes and ponds, with China and the US being main sources. Smaller in nature compared to saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls are often more durable, since they are made of almost 100% nacre— the calcium substance that forms a pearl.
Cultured Pearls are often popular for bead necklaces and bracelets, while larger pieces are mounted on earrings, rings and pendants. Some small pearls are grouped to make a cluster pattern. Pearls with unusual shapes—baroque— are popular with creative jewelry designers.
Being attuned to the moon, Pearls are believed to aid in fertility, as well as to ease discomfort when you give birth. Since Pearls are cool and soothing to the touch, they are recommended for women who are experiencing difficulties in their pregnancy.
Pearls can help balance your body’s natural rhythm and hormones with the lunar cycle. Pearls are connected to the Heart Chakra, which helps bring you inner wisdom, and nurture the growth of pure love. It helps you get in touch with your subconscious to find your meaning and purpose—your “true self”. Pearls help enlighten the mind and inspire you while teaching you to love yourself, which will in turn open you up to loving others more.
A pearl is a positive and uplifting stone that encourages good will, calms and soothes turbulent emotions and helps alleviate negativity and ill will. Since it is ruled by the moon and water, it enhances sincerity, truth and loyalty.
Being a very absorbent stone, pearls can take on your mood. If a happy person wears a pearl, it will be filled with happiness, and can transfer these good feelings to the recipient. However, if you feel excessively negative while wearing a pearl, it must mean that it was soaked in negativity, it will need to be cleansed.
CARE AND CLEANING
Pearls are quite soft, ranking at 2.5 on the Mohs scale of Hardness. This means that it can get easily scratched or abraded. It can be fragile, especially in the wake of aging and dehydration, which is why it is very important to take care of this gem.
High heat can discolor, split or crack a Cultured Pearl. Intense light can cause dehydration, which can cause small fissures to form on the pearl. Chemicals and all acids can damage a pearl, which is why it is important to keep it away from hair spray, perfume, cosmetics, and even your sweat.
Never clean Pearls in an ultrasonic or steam cleaner. The only safe way is to clean with warm, soapy water and a toothbrush with soft bristles. Make sure to dry them properly after, especially if they’re strung together.
Remember to always apply makeup and hair spray on yourself before putting on your pearl jewelry to keep it in good condition. Also, store pearls separately from other gemstones to prevent it from getting scratched.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PEARL
Unlike the 4 C’s (Clarity, Cut, Color and Carat), a Pearl is assessed based on 7 Pearl Value Factors:
Large pearls are rarer and more valuable than smaller pearls of the same type.
The most difficult shape to culture is a round one, which makes it a rare and valuable shape, given that all other factors are equal. However, some well-formed pear, oval and baroque (irregularly shaped) pearls are prized by pearl enthusiasts.
Natural and Cultured Pearls occur in a wide range of hues—both warm and cool tones. Pearl color is determined by 3 components: bodycolor, which is the overall color of the Pearl; orient, which refers to the sheen; overtone, which is one or many colors on top of a pearl’s bodycolor. All pearls show bodycolor, but not all of them show overtones.
Market trends and demand for a certain color heavily influence the price of a pearl, but it is important to note that a pearl with an even color and orient is often prized. Currently, the exotic Tahitian pearls and the Rosé Akoya pearls fetch high prices, but many favor the richly golden hues of a South Sea Pearl.
One very important value to note in a Pearl, this is what gives a Natural or Cultured Pearl its unique beauty. The higher the luster, the more valuable the Pearl will be. This is often ranked from Excellent down to Poor. Here, the clarity of its reflection is assessed in determining the quality of its luster.
Pearls are never perfect, as they are formed in different circumstances. Some may show scratches, irregular ridges, creases, wrinkles, or a flattened section that affects its appearance. In worst cases, these can even affect the Pearl’s durability. The general rule of thumb here is that the lesser these characteristics, the higher the value of the pearl.
As long as there are minor, unnoticeable characteristics that can be hidden through the mounting or a drill hole, the Pearl is good to go.
This refers to the layers that form the Pearl. The nacre quality goes hand-in-hand with the pearl’s luster, since too little nacre gives the gem a dull, chalky appearance. This affects both the luster and durability of the pearl, as the Pearl becomes susceptible to damage on the surface. With that being said, a pearl with a thick layer of nacre is good. You can identify this through the satiny finish of a Pearl.
When creating earrings or necklaces, it is very important for your pearls to match in all quality factors—not just the shape and size. Matching pearls that look almost identical are priced higher. But don’t discredit the baroque pieces, since they can be used for single pieces or unique designs, depending on the jewelry designer’s creativity.
A Pearl is a classic in every woman’s wardrobe. Whether young or old, Pearls are very versatile pieces that add a subtle beauty to your look. Unlike the sparkle and glimmer of other gemstones, Pearls shine with a quiet intensity that looks ethereal and lovely no matter what time of day or occasion you wear it. A simple pair of pearl stud earrings can be used for everyday, while a pearl necklace can brighten up a black dress for evening parties. With the right care, your Pearl jewelry can last you a lifetime.