Through history, pearls have been seen as a symbol of status and wealth and were so valued over the centuries that it has the title “Queen of Gems”. While there isn’t a specific date as to when the pearl was first discovered, it was highly valued by the ancient Egyptians and Romans. The Chinese history of a pearl is older still with the first mention of a pearl in a book that is over four thousand years old. China is also believed to be the first country to create cultured pearls in 1082 AD.
There are a variety of dimensions to look at types of pearls.
One of the top dimensions is whether a pearl is naturally formed in the wild or whether they are farmed or cultured (formed after putting in an irritant into the mollusc to cause it to form a pearl). The best natural pearls in the world used to come from the Persian Gulf, around Bahrain, because the mixture of sweet and salty water seemed to be conducive to creating exceptional pearls. However, with the oil industry developing in the Gulf in the 1930’s, pearls from Bahrain became a part of history. The other place with a stock of natural pearls is India, though available in a very small scale now. Natural pearls were over fished over the last few centuries to a point where good quality natural pearls are such a rare commodity that an individual pearl are collector’s items worth hundreds of thousands of pounds each.
Today when pearls are talked about, they are primarily cultured pearls that are farmed. Pearl farming is mostly restricted to regions in China, Japan, Tahiti, Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia and Australia, sometimes referred to as South Seas. The modern art of farming pearls was pioneered by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893 when he introduced a tiny mother of pearl bead into the pearl oyster, in a technique called seeding oysters. Japan controls a significant portion of the pearl market with the Mikimoto family still very much in the business of producing the best pearls in the world. According to an FAO report, the mother of pearl bead used for seeding is produced by a mollusc in the Mississippi river and it is then exported to Japan for seeding the oysters.
Akoya pearls take between 9 and 16 months to harvest after the seeding. In some other oysters, it can take up to 2 years.
Imitation pearls are artificially made pearls using a variety of methods. A coating over glass beads is one technique of creating imitation pearls. One of the good quality imitation pearls is shell pearls formed with the actual nacre from mollusc shells. A mother of pearl bead is coated with pearl nacre dust and baked. Since some shell pearls have the same structure as cultured pearls, sometimes even with an x-ray, it is difficult to tell the difference between cultured pearls and shell pearls.
Pearls that are farmed in sea water are created by an oyster. The akoya pearl is created in an oyster called pinctada fucata. Some of the other pearl oysters are:
Gulf pearl oyster - Pinctada radiata
Black-lip oyster - Pinctada margaritifera
Gold-lip oyster - Pinctada maxima
White-lip oyster - Pinctada maxima
Fresh water pearls are actually created in a mussel, not an oyster. Fresh water mussels include the Hyriopsis cumingii, Hyriopsis schlegelii. Fresh water pearls are typically impregnated to form 24-32 pearls.
Most people know pearls to be round or nearly round. But freshwater pearls that are not seeded, can come in a variety of shapes such as stick,baroque, coin, square, to complete free form like the Keshi pearl. Star and heart shape pearls are also created in freshwater!
Pearls come in a lovely whimsical set of natural colours such as pale pink, lavender, peach, black, gold other than white. The pearls from Tahiti are produced by the black lip oyster and are black but can vary into shades of dark green, purple and greys as well.
The type of pearl whether freshwater or sea pearls is one of the key determining factors of the value of a pearl, with sea pearls having a higher value than a freshwater pearl.
The perfect round shape is highly valued though sometimes, slightly different shapes can also have a value. Freshwater pearls are rarely perfectly round, something that the sea pearls usually have because of the seeding technique.
When everything else is equal, the larger the size of the pearl, the greater value for the pearl. This is because it is more difficult to get a 12mm pearl than a 3mm pearl.
The rare colours of gold, purple (Tahitian pearls) are much sought after and tend to increase the value of a pearl. However, the white is what most people often associate with a pearl, and so a pure good quality white is also valued.
The lustre is a function of the thickness of the nacre. The lustre is the iridescent glow. The thicker the nacre, the better the glow. Sea pearls are most often associated with a metallic lustre.
When one looks at a pearl, the quality of the surface of the pearl is also quite key. Blemishes that can be seen by the eye reduce the value of a pearl. Close examination of a pearl with tools can show if a pearl that seems blemish free to the naked eye is really blemish free of mostly blemish free.
The thickness of the nacre is usually measured by professional instruments and the thicker the nacre, the better the value of a pearl.
Our jewellery that uses pearls can be seen in the Goddess Collection