While most precious gemstones are mined from deep within the layers of the Earth’s crust, pearls are formed by living organisms. These unique organic gems are created when an object, such as a shell bead, is embedded inside an oyster. The oyster covers the object with a naturally iridescent substance called nacre, which produces a smooth, visually appealing outer casing.
Although pearls are most commonly associated with the classic, creamy-white coloration, there is actually a wide range of different shades and varieties available. Renowned for their luster and smoothness, pearls elicit a timeless elegance that makes them a popular choice for gift-giving. At Brilliance, we offer a premier assortment of cultured pearls set in studs, necklaces, bracelets, and solitaire pendants, appropriate for formal events as well as everyday wear.
Also referred to as “marine pearls,” saltwater pearls are produced by oysters living in saline aquatic environments. Although some naturally occurring saltwater pearls are still found, a vast majority are created by cultured processes using the same technique, where a small bead is inserted into the inside of the oyster. The pearl sac then grows around the nucleus of the bead before it is harvested.
Today’s cultured pearls can be classified in one of four major types:
Named after the Japanese word for “saltwater,” the Akoya pearl is generally regarded as the most desirable of its kind. Harvested in the Akoya oyster, most of today’s Akoya pearls are produced in Japan and China. Exemplifying the classic pearl appearance, they are usually found in classic white or cream colorations, although they can also take on rose, silver, or green shades. Due to its small size, the Akoya oyster produces some of the industry’s most petite pearls, ranging from 2 to 11 millimeters in size. Their small size and desirable round shape make Akoya pearls ideal for use in fine jewelry, especially when paired with other pearls and stones.
Widely regarded as some of the most beautiful in the world, Tahitian pearls are created in Tahiti and the outlying French Polynesian islands. These types of pearls are cultured in the large, black-lipped Pinctada margaritifera oyster, which is marked by a highly attractive mother-of-pearl shell. Due to the considerable size of the oyster, Tahitian pearls are generally bigger than average. Although often referred to as “black pearls,” the creation of a truly black Tahitian pearl is extremely rare; most of the uncommonly dark colorations range from silver to charcoal to deep green.
Produced in waters between the northern coast of Australia and the southern coast of China, South Sea pearls are engendered by the Pinctada maxima oyster. A favorable aquatic environment, a plentiful food supply, and a fast metabolism all contribute to the large size of the Pinctada maxima. Because the oyster can accommodate a much larger nuclear bead than smaller oysters, it’s able to produce pearls up to 20 millimeters in size. Only one pearl can be produced at a time, although the Pinctada maxima oyster can be nucleated up to three times during its life span. South Sea pearls are marked by a satiny luster, a thick nacre shell, and a rich range of white, silver, and gold colorations.
Freshwater pearls are cultured in ponds, lakes, and rivers rather than in large bodies of saltwater. Formed in a wide variety of shapes and colorations, freshwater pearls are created using smaller oysters, resulting in more petite stones. Twenty or more pearls can be produced from a single freshwater oyster. Although once regarded as a less desirable variety, freshwater pearls have steadily grown in quality and appearance, now rivaling their saltwater counterparts. As a result, freshwater pearls have become an attractive option for those seeking the beauty and elegance of pearl jewelry at a more economical price.
All natural pearls are coated by a resilient, organic material called nacre, the same substance that’s used to create the shell of its parent oyster. It’s the nacre that determines the color of a pearl.
All natural pearls are coated by a resilient, organic material called nacre, the same substance that’s used to create the shell of its parent oyster. It’s the nacre that determines the color of a pearl. Although most commonly associated with the classic white coloration, pearls are also found in a rich medley of shades, including yellow, pink, silver, green, and black. Many pearls exhibit a combination of multiple shades when viewed in certain lighting. The main color is referred to as the “body color” (classified as either a cool or warm hue), while the secondary shade is called the “overtone.”
By far, the most sought after and valued of all pearl shapes is the round variety. A smooth, spherical pearl with good symmetry and a shimmering luster will command the highest price. This water-grown gemstone can take on a variety of other forms, including semi-round, oval, teardrop, and semi-baroque; although these variations can be quite beautiful, they are generally regarded as less valuable than round stones. Saltwater pearls—Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea—are usually more round and symmetrical than freshwater pearls.
Another important consideration when determining the value of a pearl is its size. As is the case with most gemstones, larger pearls are generally more expensive than smaller ones. The millimeter is used as the standard unit of measurement for pearls, which can range from 2mm to 20mm. Many factors determine how small or large a pearl will be, including the size of its parent oyster, the size of the bead or particle at the core of the pearl, and the amount of time the oyster is allowed to remain immersed in water before the pearl is harvested from its shell. Freshwater pearls are generally the smallest variety. In the saltwater class, Akoyo pearls are typically more petite than Tahitian and South Sea pearls, which can measure up to 20mm.
One of the biggest determining factors of a pearl’s beauty and value is its luster. The stone’s capacity for reflecting light is directly impacted by the quality of the nacre that forms its outer shell; a smooth, thick surface creates added luster, which makes the pearl more desirable. Larger pearls are comprised of more nacre, which results in a higher level of shine.
The “perfect pearl” is generally typified by a smooth, blemish-free surface, but in reality, very few authentic pearls are completely unmarked. Because they originate from living organisms, natural pearls often include variations and imperfections in the surface of the nacre that forms their outer shell. The nacre covering lends a slightly coarse feel to cultured and natural pearls, while imitation pearls exhibit a glass-like smoothness. The highest quality pearls are marked with few blemishes and have a relatively smooth, even surface.
Since the early 20th century, a majority of today’s pearls have been cultured by man. Although they are technically formed by living organisms, their creation is expedited by the simulation of ideal conditions. Pearl harvesters place shell beads inside an oyster, then return the oyster to the water. Over time, the oyster covers the bead with nacre, forming a pearl. Later, the oyster is recovered from the water and the pearl is removed. Depending on the type of oysters selected for pearl harvesting, different sizes and colorations result. As a general rule, larger oysters produce larger pearls.
Most cultured pearls are produced in the Far East. The growth of the cultured pearl industry has mitigated the gem’s initially high pricing, making pearls accessible to more consumers.
Naturally occurring pearls are extremely rare. It’s estimated that one in every 10,000 animals produces a pearl spontaneously. These uncommon specimens are formed by shell-producing oysters, or mollusks, which have inhabited aquatic and land habitats for more than 530 million years. When a foreign object, such as a food particle or grain of sand, becomes trapped inside the oyster, the object can become covered with layers of nacre, a resilient, composite material also known as mother-of-pearl. It’s the nacre, the same material the animal uses to form its own shell, that is responsible for the smooth, polished surface that has become highly desirable for fine jewelry.
In past centuries, the rarity of naturally occurring pearls greatly increased their demand, which in turn boosted their market price.
Due to the delicacy of their nature-grown exterior, pearls require special care and attention. They should never be cleaned in an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner or with harsh, abrasive chemicals. To remove surface dirt, you can use a soft cloth moistened with water and mild soap. To restore your pearls’ natural beauty, we recommend taking the stones to a professional jeweler for an expert cleaning.
The best way to ensure the continuing radiance of your pearl jewelry is to wear it as often as possible. When the pearls are exposed to the natural oils of your skin, the contact helps to enhance their lustrous surface.
To preserve the beauty of natural or cultured pearls, eliminate exposure to sprays, perfumes, and cosmetics, as these can cause dullness or discoloration. When they’re not being worn, store your pearls in a separate compartment or pouch to prevent them from getting scratched by other jewelry pieces.