Whether it’s a classic strand of white pearls given as a graduation present, a sparkling tiara studded with pearls fit for a queen, or a time honored painting, pearls have always inspired us. But what exactly is a pearl, and what makes it so special?
Pearls come in many body colors including grey, white, gold, and even green. Adding to that body color can be overtones of every hue in the rainbow lending to a spectacular, luminous appearance. Pearls can also come in many shapes including round, semi-round, baroque, button, drop, pear, oval, and circled where the body is covered with concentric rings or ridges. A natural pearl is a miracle of nature, formed by the intrusion of foreign matter within a mollusk. Pearls are the epitome of something beautiful arising from a bad situation. The process is simple; a small irritant makes its way into the body of the mollusk which then deposits layers of a pearlescent substance called nacre over the foreign body to combat the irritation. What results is a natural pearl which is extremely rare and highly valued.
The question you’re probably asking yourself right now is what about cultured pearls? Well to answer that question, I’ll start with a story, about onions. You see, pearls are a lot like onions. They are created by layer upon layer of smooth nacre. However it is what is at the heart of those layers that differentiates a natural pearl from a cultured pearl. Natural pearls are, as the name implies, the result of a natural process to rid the mollusk of an irritating intruder. However it is not feasible or cost effective to create an industry based on chance, so pearl lovers and entrepreneurs started looking for a way to assist Mother Nature by implanting irritants into the mollusks in a controlled environment forming a cultured pearl like the stunning example below.
A cultured pearl is formed when either a portion of the mantle from a donor mollusk or a bead nucleus is placed into a host mollusk. Saltwater pearls such as Tahitians and South Seas use a bead nucleus, and Fresh water pearls use the donor mantle process. In both cases, the host mollusk is then placed back into the water where it starts adding layers of nacre, thus forming the pearl. In a way it’s like our onion. Yes I keep going back to that, but it’s true. Onions occur and grown naturally in the wild, and people loved them. So enterprising farmers decided to speed up and control the process by “culturing” them, by farming. The onion/pearl is the same, but the seed and growing processes are a bit more high tech. So now that we understand what a cultured pearl is, let’s talk about the three main types in a little more detail.
Tahitian pearls, known for their lustrous black body color, are surprisingly not grown in Tahiti, but rather in the tropical waters of the surrounding islands. The name stuck due to Tahiti historically being the pearl’s main trading center. When it comes to growing Tahitian pearls, a bead nucleus, along with a small piece of donor mantle is implanted into a special oyster called the “black lipped oyster”, known as such due to the dark edges of the inner shell. The “black lipped oyster” is capable of producing pearls that are round or baroque in shape and averaging between 8 and 18 mm in diameter. It takes a full two years to produce a single Tahitian pearl. Imagine how long it took to create this stunning rope of natural black pearls worn by Mary, Queen of Scots.
South Sea pearls are formed via the same grafting process as Tahitians using a bead nucleus. However, they are mostly farmed in Australia and Indonesia using a specific type of oyster known as the “white lipped” or “silver lipped” oyster. South Sea pearls are prized for their white or silver body color and their ability to be produced in all shapes and sizes from 8 to 20mm. South Sea pearls are one of the most lustrous types of pearls owing to the thicker layers of nacre produced by the oyster which can also lend the pearls vivid overtones of green, pink and blue. However this type of oyster is extremely sensitive to changes in ocean temperature or disturbance, making this type of pearl even rarer and more valuable.
Moving out of the sea and into lakes and rivers we find the freshwater pearl. The main difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls is that freshwater pearls are grown in a mollusk instead of an oyster, and that no bead nucleus is used. Freshwater mussels are much hardier than their saltwater cousins and therefore can produce as many as 40 pearls at once, whereas oysters can produce only one! These pearls come in every shape and size, as well as all colors from white to metallic.
So which type of pearl is for you? Well it all comes down to your personal style. South Seas are a time honored classic and are beautiful as a matched set in a necklace. Tahitians make a bold statement and look amazing paired with white diamonds to offset their dark coloring. And freshwater pearls can do it all from funky fashion piece, to elegant round stud earrings. When it comes to pearls, the world is literally your oyster… or mussel as the case may be. *Sorry, I couldn’t help myself with that last bit*