Classification: Precious Stone
Colour: Dependent on The Type/Multicoloured
Hardness: 2.5 – 4.5
HISTORY AND LORE
Pearls are ranked as one of the worlds most popular gems. Without a doubt they are timeless beauties that make for both a subtle accent and a glamorous statement. Pearls encapsulate beauty, serenity, and elegance. They are also an ancient jewel that has been favored throughout time, all over the world. The gem’s distinct appearance and aquatic origins has sparked the imagination of entire civilizations and has sourced its symbolism and lore.
The oldest record of pearls in written history dates back to 2206 B.C. China. The presence of pearls in history can be found in every culture, with each one having its own belief system wrapped around the gem. Byzantian laws dictated that only the emperor was permitted to wear the lustrous jewel, for it was too beautiful and too grand for any other soul. The Greeks associated pearls with the Gods, specifically Aphrodite, because like pearls, the goddess of love and beauty came from the sea. In ancient China people used pearls to symbolize the moon and believed that it would protect oneself from fire and dragons. Ancient Sanskrit texts declared that pearls were born of the Earth’s waters and heaven’s power and were fertilized by lightening. They believed pearls to be daughters of the moon. 16th century England is actually called the Pearl Age, as a means of conveying the era’s prestige and richness. Europeans would associate pearls with modesty and chastity when worn by a woman.
For the most part, however, pearls became symbols of wealth and were often given as gifts. In the 13th century, explorer Marco Polo gifted the emperor Kublai Khan with a massive Arco Valley Pearl on his excursion to Mongolia. The pearl was Polo's way of expressing his respect and appreciation for emperor Khan's power and wealth. The treasure weighed 575 carats and measured at 3 inches long. It was, at the time, the largest pearl ever found.
One of the most famous pearls in the world is the La Peregrina Pearl, which in Spanish means the “pilgrim-woman” or “female wanderer”. It is a white pear-shaped saltwater pearl and weighs 55.95 carats. The jewel’s origin story claims that in 1516 an enslaved African man discovered the pearl in the Spanish colony of Panama. They say that the radiant gem was so beautiful and extraordinary that the enslaved man was rewarded for his discovery with his freedom. This, however, isn’t entirely accurate, because there’s no record of enslaved people being in Panama until years later. So, either the story itself is untrue or the pearl was discovered at a later date. Either way the gem was discovered in Panama and taken to Spain where King Phillip II presented it to his wife Queen Mary I of England. After Mary, the La Peregrina Pearl was gifted and passed down to various queens and princesses for decades. Its royal history spans almost 500 years. Until 1969, when actor Richard Burton bought and gave the historically rich pearl to none other than his jewellery obsessed wife, the famous Elizabeth Taylor.
Now pearls have become symbols of timeless fashion and sophistication. They have been used in various ways and immortalized in paintings and lore, leaving us with symbols of layered history and fantasies.
NATURAL VS. CULTURED
If you are or ever have been interested pearls you’ve probably heard the terms “natural” and “cultured”. These two terms simply refer to the process in which the pearl was made. A pearl is either a natural pearl or a cultured pearl.
As implied the term “natural” means the pearl is made under completely natural/organic circumstances. It is found in nature and extracted from the sea. Natural pearls are formed within the bodies of various mollusks. Pearls begin as microscopic irritants, usually in the form a grain of sand or shell debris. The foreign body makes its way into the oyster, mussel, or clam, where it begins to irritate its host. In response to the presence of the foreign body, the mollusk’s defense mechanisms kick in. It begins to secrete a crystal-like substance called nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl. Layer upon layer of the substance is secreted until, BOOM, a pearl. And since the mollusk will continue to coat the pearl in nacre for the rest of its life pearls vary in size depending on how long the irritant has been in there.
Since pearls have been fished out the ocean for centuries it’s very rare to find a natural pearl now-a-days. Recent surveys tell us that only 1 in 10,000 wild oysters will contain a pearl, most of which are too small and of too poor a quality to be sold on the jewellery market.
The term “cultured” means farmed. Pearl farmers simulate a mollusk’s natural environment and force the creation of pearls. Specially trained technicians insert a specific irritant (typically a small shell bead from another sacrifices mollusk) into a fully matured mollusk. From there they simply maintain the mollusk’s ideal environment and patiently wait for the cultured pearl to be harvested. The longer they wait, the bigger the cultured pearl.
Cultured pearls being lower in price than that of natural pearls is not an indication of their difference in quality, because there really isn’t much of difference. The difference in price is simply due to the fact that natural pearls are much harder to come by than cultured pearls. People have been cultivating pearls for hundreds of years. The practice itself began in China but wasn’t perfected until Japanese pearl farmers successfully produced whole cultured pearls in the beginning of the 20th century.
Most folks know that pearls come in White, Grey, and black. However, pearls can come in a number of hues ranging from white, pink, purple, and even green. The rarest colour a pearl can come in is a vibrant naturally occurring blue.
But how do pearls get their different colours? Well, there are 3 main factors:
- Type of mollusk
- Thickness of nacre layers
- Human Interference
A pearl’s colour is predominately influenced by the type of mollusk, specifically the mollusk’s lip/the edge of the outer shell. If the colour lip has a distinct colour then chances are the pearl within will be of a similar colour. For example, the Pinctada margaritifera oyster has a silvery gray-coloured shell edge. They produce the famous black Tahitian pearls.
The thickness of the nacre effects the saturation of the pearl. Essentially the thicker the nacre the richer the colour of the pearl.
The final factor in the colour process of a pearl’s development is of course, human influence. Whether by dyeing the pearl or by inputting various techniques in the culture process, humans can always imprint their will onto nature. So, when looking for a natural pearl always ask if the pearl has been dyed, to be sure everything about the lustrous gem is authentic.
Pearls come from a variety of places, which is why they can be found in almost every cultural history and mythology. Because pearls come from so many different places, you often get distinct characterics, representing the jewel’s place of birth, each with its own unique beauty offering its wearer a one-of-a-kind experience.
There are approximately 4 main variants of pearl: Freshwater, South Sea, Akoya, and Tahitian.
South sea pearls, also known as the “Queen of Pearls”, are considered the most luxurious of the pearl variants. They are the largest and come in a stunning palette of golds, silvers and whites. Their thick nacre and long gestation period make for large beautifully saturated pearls with subtle metallic over tones and the sharpest shine you will ever see in a pearl.
South Sea pearls are commonly farmed out of Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines form saltwater oysters.
Freshwater culture pearls are the most common variety of the gem, and luckily the most popular amongst pearl shoppers. Freshwater pearls are the second largest pearl type and commonly come in a variety of colours, Albeit muted various of the colour. They are also the cheapest type of pearl out there. This is not only due to their frequency in production, but also due to their quality. Freshwater pearls tend to be considered lower in quality, primarily because they do not shine as sharply as most other pearl types. Their shine is more muted and their surface is more rigid.
Freshwater pearls are typically farmed in both natural and man-made freshwater lakes in China from oysters.
Akoya pearls are the classic white pearls that everyone imagines when they think of pearls. They come out perfectly round, white, and shiny and have nearly a mirror-like reflective quality to them.
Akoyas are saltwater pearls farmed out of the colder waters of the Pacific Ocean surrounding Japan, Vietnam and China.
Ah, the dark and mysterious black Tahitian pearl. These pearls, which are in fact more often than not black, are seen as the most exotic and mystical of the pearl variants. The colour can vary from a light dove grey to a deep black charcoal. Rarely do you find a true as night black pearl. They are for the most part greyish in colour with multicoloured overtones of green, purple, and blue. They can also get quite large in size ranging from 8mm up to 13mm.
Tahitian pearls are saltwater pearls farmed out of warmer waters in the French Polynesia.
Believe it or not pearls are gems not stones. Jewels like emeralds, rubies, and diamonds are formed deep beneath the earth’s surface from minerals, while pearls are made from more organic material. They are not hard enough to be classified as a stone. The only real reason why we so often consider them as such is because the ancients didn’t really have a distinct understanding of materiality like we do today.
On the mohs scale of hardness pearls rank a mere 2.5-4.5 making the aquatic jewel the softest of the gemstones. To give you a better idea of their softness, pearls are just as hard as your fingernail. That’s right pearls can be broken and picked away at just as easily has the nail on your fingers. This means that pearls are one of the most difficult gems to maintain.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Due to both the low level of hardness and the aquatic origins of the gem, pearls require a lot of work to maintain that brilliant colour, lustrous shine, and immaculate surface. But don’t worry, while there may be a lot to bear in mind, when you follow these instructions, you will have a timeless gem that can outlive you.
First thing is first, when you are not wearing your pearls, ALWAYS put them away in a dark place. Because pearls originate from the dark wet insides of a mollusk the colour is very sensitive to light. Over time that sharp shine and stunning colour will fade. The crisp white will turn into a dull browned yellow, that deep grey will turn a muddled ash, and the vivid green will turn a murky swamp colour. The number one rule with pearls is to put them away when you are not using them.
The second rule for maintaining pearls is no perfumes, colognes or lotions. Pearls are very porous, thus making them very susceptible to any chemicals they may encounter. Exposure to such chemicals will quicken the decay of the gem. You could also risk the chance of the pearl breaking completely. For this reason, it’s best to avoid applying perfumes or locations to any area where the pearl will be in contact with your skin. Before, or after, it doesn’t matter.
The third rule is to always rinse them under lukewarm water after use. Do not use any detergent, just rinse them and gently wipe them down with a soft cloth. That’s it. Their spherical shape makes them easy to clean.
If you follow these three simple rules your pearls will stay glistening and saturated for ages.
Also known as the queen of gemstones, the pearl is an ancient jewel that has captivated hearts and souls of nearly ever civilization in existence. The colours are diverse, but the illustrious serenity it emotes is constant. Whether as a gift or a personal treat this gem will elevate both your jewellery box and your fashion.