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Comprehensive Gemstone Information


Pearl - The Oldest Gem

Scientific Description

A pearl is produced when the mollusk secretes layers of mother-of-pearl (calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite) and conchiolin (a horn-like substance) around an irritant. The irritant could be natural grit, or even small rounded beads of mother-of-pearl placed in cultured pearls.

The layers (also called nacre) gradually build up during 3 to 7 years to form a spherical, oblong or irregularly-shaped pearl. Light reflecting from these overlapping layers near the surface of the pearl flash a subtle spectrum of color, called the "orient of pearl." Depending on the type of mollusk, pearls can be white, pinkish, brown or even black.

Types of Pearls

In 1919, the son of a Japanese noodle maker perfected and patented a method of cultivating Pearls. This transformed the production of the pearls into an industry.

A cultured pearl gets a helping hand from man. The irritant is a surgically implanted mother-of-pearl bead or nuclei. The core or center of a cultured pearl is, therefore, much larger than that of a natural pearl. As long as there are enough layers of nacre to result in a beautiful, gem-quality Pearl, the size of the nucleus is of little importance to beauty or durability. The culturing process takes place over a period of from one to three years, depending on the conditions, the species, and the desired outcome.

Saltwater Pearls

Saltwater Pearls are usually more expensive than freshwater pearls. One of the most popular salt water pearls is Akoya Japanese Pearls. South Sea Pearls also command a premium price. They are typically much larger than Akoyas. The black pearls mostly come from Tahiti. All these pearls command a premium price in the market.

Akoya Pearls

Akoya Pearls are very popular and are named after the Japanese word for the relatively small Pinctada Fucata oyster. Mostly grown in Japanese and Chinese coastal waters, these oysters are nucleated with as many as five beads ranging from 2 to 6 millimeters in diameter. Only about one out of five nucleated Akoya produces Pearls and only a fraction of these are of gem quality.

South Sea Pearls

South Sea Pearls come from Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Cultured in varieties of Pinctada Maxima, these large, warm water loving, gold and silver-lipped oysters produce fabulous colors. They are very expensive.

Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian Pearls are from French Polynesia and are named after the tropical island of Tahiti. Grown in the large black-lipped oyster Pinctada Margaritifera, these Tahitian Pearls are usually very expensive. They are well known for their very attractive black, gray and silver colors.

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater Pearls are cultured by slightly different methods without a bead. Although historically originating in Japan around Lake Biwa, Chinese freshwater pearl production congregates on the Yangtze River in Eastern China. The US also produces fresh water pearls  in the South, especially the Tennessee River.

Freshwater Pearls are cheaper to produce as each mollusk can yield up to 30 pearls per harvest! American freshwaters are allowed to mature for much longer than all other cultured pearls (up to 5 years, compared to 1 year for most others) resulting in a thicker nacre which gives American pearls an unusually high luster and orient (the iridescence from the light reflected from the inside of the pearl).

Culturing pearls is a delicate process. Only 25 - 50% produce pearls and generally only a small percentage of the pearls harvested are of gem quality.

The freshwater pearls comes in a range of colors - from white to tan to grey, depending primarily on the species which is used in the production.

Enhancements are very common. Most of the pearls are bleached to remove dark spots which show through the nacre. Other techniques such as dying or irradiation produce pearls with exotic colors such as green, rose and lavender.

Faux (Fake) Pearls

Faux pearls (fake or artificial pearls) can consist of a variety of materials such as glass, ground fish scales, plastic or shell with various surface treatments meant to simulate the pearls luster.

Fakes can be easily detected with the simple tooth test.

How to Test for Fake

A rule of thumb when testing a suspect pearl, is to rub it across the surface of your teeth. Gently scrape the pearls along the ridges of your top teeth. If it glides easily, it's fake. If you feel a slight gritty abrasiveness, it's most likely cultured or natural.

There is no real way to tell if a pearl is natural or cultured. X-ray inspection can do that. The natural pearl will not have the seed or nucleus and the nacre or wall will be much thicker. Also, the wall will be made of webbing for natural pearl. Natural pearls are very rare and if you find them, they will command a premium price.

Classification of Pearls by Shape

Pearls are generally named by their shape.

Baroque pearls can be any shape, stick pearls, button pearls, seed or rice pearls, rounds and drops.

Blister pearls are created by attaching a bead or other nucleus to the shell of the mollusk and then cutting it out after it has become nacreous.

Mabe pearls are assembled from blister pearls which are then filled and glued to a shell base.

The term "keshi" has come to be used for just about any baroque pearl. It really refers to a small pearl which spontaneously forms in the oyster during the culturing process, without mantle tissue or bead.

Next: Pricing Pearls

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Jewelry with Pearl

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See Also:

Products with Pearl

Therapeutic Properties of Pearl

Gemstone Infocenter Home

Gift Selections incorporating Gemstones

Guide to Caring for Gemstones

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