PEARLS : 101
Pearls are a key element in our designs. A symbol of wisdom their timeless beauty transcends cultures and trends. The simple grace and beauty of pearls has inspired people for over 4,000 years. Pearls – like people – take time to grow, need to be nurtured and are not perfect; although some get real close. They come in all shapes, colours and sizes too. When designed into jewelry the results are often incredible pieces of wearable art.
Long known as the ‘Queen of Gemstones’, pearls have been symbols of wealth and power throughout history. Pearls are the only living organic gemstone. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s by Kokichi Mikimoto (1), natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very rich. Diverse ancient cultures including Egyptian, Persian, Roman and Asian prized and revered pearls. One ancient lore shares that the Hindu god Krishna discovered pearls when he plucked the first one from the sea and presented it to his daughter Pandaí¯a on her wedding day.
There are two types of pearls - cultured and natural. Both forms are organic, living gemstones. ’Natural’ pearls form when an irritant accidentally embeds into the soft tissue/mantle of an oyster or mollusk. As a defence action, the animal produces a hard crystalline substance around the irritant in order to protect itself. These secretions, called nacre (pronounced NAY-ker), coat the irritant creating a smooth surface. This surface reflects light due to the microscopic crystals of calcium carbonate, that align perfectly with one another, so that light passing along the axis of one crystal is reflected and refracted by another to produce a rainbow of light and colour.
In today’s marketplace ‘Cultured Pearls’ are used in commercial jewellery. The difference between natural and cultured pearls is that an irritant is introduced into the mollusk of the latter by a human rather than by natural forces. It takes several years of nacre formation to create a lustrous pearl. The nurturing process for freshwater ‘Fireball’ pearls can take up to 7 years. Fireball pearls get their namesake as they originally had tails making them look like a comet streaking across the night sky. We love the rich luminescent quality of Fireball pearls.
Pearls are valued by a spectrum of qualities, such as size, colour, shape, lustre, and surface texture. When it comes to high quality the rule of thumb for pearl jewelry is ‘the more the better’. The bigger, whiter, rounder and smoother pearls are, the higher their quality is and the more they cost. Sorting and matching pearls for assembly into pieces of jewellery, such as a necklace, is a time-consuming process. It takes refined skills. This can add to the jewellery’s cost as well.
There are four main types of cultured pearls:
Akoya — are bead-nucleated cultured pearls produced in the Pinctada fucata martensii and Pinctada fucata chemnitzii primarily in Japan, China, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia, with the majority of production (>95%) taking place in Japan.
Renowned for their lustre, akoya are considered the classic pearl.
Akoya pearls were the first cultured pearls to be farmed using a bead and mantle tissue technique patented by Kokichi Mikimoto of Mie Prefecture, Japan in 1916. Akoya are generally white or cream coloured, with overtone colours of rose, silver and cream. Non-white colours such as blue, silver-blue and yellow exist but are considered uncommon colours. (2)
South Sea— South Sea pearls are the largest and rarest of the cultured pearls – making them the most valuable. White & silver colored South Sea pearls come from the coastline of North-Western Australia, while golden colored ones are more prevalent in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Tahitian— The warm lagoon waters of the islands and atolls of French Polynesia are Mother Nature’s choice for the cultivation of her pure living gem: the Tahitian Cultured Pearl.
Commonly known as "Black Pearls," Tahitian Cultured Pearls range widely in pricing, size, shape and colors. From the darkest black to shimmering shades of green, blue, bronze, aubergine, or even pink - these are truly the jewels of the ocean.
Freshwater— Cultured in freshwater lakes and ponds they come in a variety of colours, sizes and shapes. These pearls are extremely durable as they are solid nacre, resisting chipping and wear. China is the world’s leading source of freshwater pearls with a total production of 1,500 tons in 2006, China holds a monopoly over the pearl industry today. The largest marketplace for these freshwater pearls is the world's pearl trading hub, Hong Kong.
What Makes Freshwater Pearls Different?
Freshwater Pearls differ from other cultured pearls, in that the great majority of them are not bead-nucleated. Freshwater mollusks are nucleated by creating a small incision in the fleshy mantle tissue of a 6 to 12 month old mussel, then inserting a 3mm square piece of mantle tissue from a donor mussel. Upon insertion, the donor, (graft) tissue is twisted slightly, rounding out the edges. What happens after this point is really just speculation. Some believe that this tissue acts as a catalyst in producing a pearl sac thus making the 'nucleation' actual 'activation'. Others believe the tissue molds with the host to create a pearl sac, while still others maintain the tissue is the actual nucleus. Although it is said that a freshwater mollusk can withstand up to 25 insertions per valve, it is common industry practice to perform only 12-16 insertions in either valve, for a total production of 24-32 pearls. The mollusks are then returned to their freshwater environment where they are tended for 2-6 years. The resulting pearls are of solid nacre, but without a bead nucleus to guide the growth process the pearls are rarely perfectly round. (3)
There are eight common shapes: Baroque, Button, Coin, Keshi, Potato, Oval, Ringed, and Round or Semi-round. Perfectly round pearls are the rarest and are considered by many to be the most valuable.
(1) Fred Ward is a gemologist and author of the book Pearls (Gem Book Publishers, Bethesda, Maryland, 1998), from which this article was adapted.
(2), (4) Pearl Guide - www.pearl-guide.com