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Timeless Elegance In A Small But Beautiful Package – The Pearl

Seductive, serene, mesmerizing and the true ambassador for elegance the pearl stands alone as the token of class and good taste. You can never fail, wearing pearls. They are timeless, they are beautiful and they are no longer hard to come by.

They are believed to have been cherished and worn for more than 6000 years. The first known source of a natural one was in the Persian Gulf, and the oldest one found was in a necklace of a Persian prince who died in 520 BC.

Their written history dates back to a 23rd century BC Chinese book, where a scribe writes that a lesser king sent tribute of strings of pearls not quite round.

It is said that Cleopatra dissolved them in wine and drank them to enhance her beauty. Whether it worked or not is hidden in history. Busts found of Cleopatra do not portray her as a great beauty, so I have my doubts. She bathed in milk from donkeys also, but this page is not about Cleopatra, so I leave it at that.

Their popularity in ancient Rome was huge, but only upper class women were allowed to wear them.
A Japanese should change that, but not before the early 1900s.

Natural specimens are very rare, and most are of irregular shape, not the very sought after round. The few there are, are sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the market, and were and are indeed only for the upper class. The lack of natural specimens raised the need to create artificial pearls, and in the end of the 1920s Kokichi Mikimoto discovered a way to make cultured ones. He patented the discovery and started a huge business, cultivating both saltwater and freshwater pearls.

As with all new things, it took a while before his cultured specimens were accepted, but today they account for 95% of the worlds production.

But what are cultured pearls, and how are they made?
Mikimoto found that if he planted a nucleus, which is a small foreign substance, into an oyster, it would build a sack of nacre around it, to protect itself from the irritation of the object. Nacre is a calcium carbonate crystalline substance, and what we see when looking at a pearl. The oyster or mollusc was then returned to the water and left for an amount of time, before the pearls were harvested. This took from less than a year up to 5 years, depending on the mussel used and the desired outcome.

This actually happens when they are created natural also, but then a foreign substance such as a grain of sand, invades the shell and enters the mantel tissue inside without human interfering. So the only difference between a natural and a cultured one, is what invades the oyster, and what puts it there.

This technique made it possible to produce these beautiful gems in large quantities, and made them available to everybody, not just the upper class.

Culturing in saltwater or freshwater, what is the difference?
There are around 8000 different species of mollusks or oysters, but only 20 are capable of producing pearls, and from these only a small percentage produce gem quality. From these some live in freshwater and some in saltwater, and they are evaluated on different quality scales.

To culture saltwater specimens, a nucleus, of generally mother of pearl, is implanted into the oysters. The shape of this bead decides the shape of the finished outcome. Because of the bead inserted, they have a nucleus, which can be seen on x-ray. Using X-ray is the only way to see if a pearl is natural or not.

To create freshwater ones, a small piece of tissue mantel from a donor oyster is inserted into the mollusc. This is a simple procedure and do not require lots of training to perform, therefor they are cheaper to produce than in saltwater. Nacre is build around the nucleus, and the tissue mantel dissolves, so that the result is solid nacre. Therefor they will not have a nucleus. Because of the tissue, it is harder to produce perfectly round pearls, than with a solid nucleus like in the saltwater ones.

Each freshwater mollusc can create up to 30 pearls per harvest. High quality freshwater species do not have the high glassy, metallic finish of the saltwater ones, and very round and lustrous freshwater ones are extremely hard to find.

Saltwater culturing:

The first cultivated saltwater specimen was Mikimotos Akoya, from the Akoya oyster. They were known for their exceptional luster and close to round shape, due to the cold water in which they were grown. Sadly pollution put the production of Akoya in Japan nearly to a halt, and today only a small fraction of the Akoyas come from Japan. The major producer of Akoya today is China.

Akoya is the smallest oyster used in production, so the gems are small, only 2-11 mm. The first cultured Akoyas in China were produced in the 1960s, and since the 1980s they have produced high quality Akoyas. They range in colors from white and cream shades with pink, silver or cream overtones.

Despite their name, they are not grown on Tahiti, but in French Polynesia. Tahiti is the commercial center for the trade of Tahitian pearls.

The Black lipped oyster used to culture these specimens, produces the only natural occurring black specimens in the world and the French Polynesian government tightly regulate the quality standard. They range in intensity from almost black, which is very rare, to silver, and have a range of overtones like peacock, silver, bronze, aqua and green. All the colors are natural, except chocolate.

The Black lipped oyster can grow up to 12 inches in diameter, and therefor produce quite large gems from 8-15 mm. Unfortunately 40-50% of the oysters die from the nucleating process or reject the nucleus. Therefor only 5% of the Tahitian black specimens fall into the quality gem category.

When harvested they are polished with a mixture of saltwater and bamboo chips. They are not bleached or tinted like the Japanese and Chinese ones. If black specimens are smaller than 8 mm, they are likely not Tahitian, and will be dyed.

South sea:
Because of the warm water in which they grow, the molluscs growing in the south pacific are large, and produce larger pearls, some up to 20 mm in size. Unlike the Tahitian ones, the South sea specimens are white, cream and golden in color, and have a natural satiny luster. They are cultured in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma. Because of their size they are highly priced.

Freshwater culturing:

Cultivated in Lake Biwa in Japan, and Mikimoto's first cultured freshwater specimens. Sadly due to pollution they are very hard to come by today.

When first on the market in 1930, all freshwater types were mistakenly called Biwa. Authentic Biwas produced rice shaped specimens in previous unseen colors, and each mussel could produce up to 15-20 Biwas. They set the standard for freshwater gems and at the same time, made them more affordable.

Today some of the Biwas sold in Japan actually come from China. The USA have set a standard that only specimens from Lake Biwa can be called Biwa, but most are never the less produced in China.
Most Biwas are stick pearls and are long and flat. China have produced a cross bread of Biwa mussels and native Chinese mussels, and these hybrids produce gems of higher quality than the original Biwa oyster.

Although the major production of freshwater culturing are done in China, some are cultured in south USA in Tennessee river. These are let to mature for up to 5 years before harvested. This gives larger gems with an unusual high luster and orient.

This is an new type of pearl from north east Tokyo. The mussel is a cross breed between Japanese and Chinese freshwater mussels. They range from rosy to dark pink in color.

These beautiful gems come in a huge variety of shapes, and are often known for their shape more than from where they come. Like said before, the nucleus have a lot to say when it comes to shape.

Although you can manipulate the shape through the nucleus, most are of slightly irregular shape. The longer the pearls stays inside the mollusc, the greater the chance for an irregular shape.

There are three major categories:

Spherical: Perfectly or nearly round.
- Round: Highly desirable and valuable, but rare.
- Near round: Slightly flattened or elongated, but still nearly perfectly round.

Symmetrical: Balanced and regular in shape. If cut in half the two parts would be alike.
- Oval: Shaped oval, slightly narrower on each end, but symmetrical.
- Button: Flattened to some degree and resembles a button or a disc.
- Tear drop: Teardrop shaped. Long or short.

Semi baroque: Slightly irregular, and not quite symmetrical, these pearls come in several shapes.
- Button
- Coin
- Drop
- Oval, also called rice shaped. Often formed by two pearls that join inside the mollusc.
- Peanut (or double potato)
- Pear
- Rice
- Rondelle
- Stick
- Twin
- Wheat

Baroque: Irregular or abstract in shape.
- Blister pearls, also called Mabe.
- Keshi

These are also called half pearls. They are named after the Mabe oyster, but also represent the shape of a half pearl. They are blister types, and does not grow in the soft tissue inside the oyster, but on the inside of the shell.

A nucleus is glued onto the inside of the shell, and when covered with nacre, it is cut out, the nucleus is removed and the hole filled with resin. Then the nacreous dome is glued onto a mother of pearl bed. Cabochon shaped they have beautiful rainbow colored iridescence.

Some are enhanced with colorless or colored coating for better luster and color. Sometimes they are dyed as well.

These are shaped when the oyster rejects the nucleus and spit it out before it is completely cultured. The implanted mantle tissue may also fracture and form separate pearl sacs without a nucleus inside. This phenomena happens both in saltwater and freshwater.

The Keshi are small in size and since they have no nucleus, they are irregular in shape. They are therefor sorted under Baroque. They have high luster and even rare orient. The Keshis are 100% nacre and may have greater luster than even the highest quality cultured types.

Since Keshi is a bi product of culturing, they are not considered natural. Today they are rare to find, since oyster farmers now x-ray the oysters, and if one is without a nucleus, a new is implanted before a Keshi has developed.

Grading and classifying:
There is no international standard on grading and classifying these gems, but there are two systems used, the A – AA – AAA system, and the A-F system.

Within each grading system 5 things are looked upon, shape, luster, surface, nacre and matching.

As you could see above, the ultimate specimen is round. So that is what shape means in this grading system, how close to perfectly round the it is.

This is the brilliance, the way the surface reflects light and its inner glow. How it refracts light from the layers within. The higher the luster the more it shines. Dull ones are often lacquered, but that is only temporary as it will wear off quickly.

Thin layers of nacre create a kind of diffraction grating through which light pass and are responsible for the surface iridescence. This is also called the orient. The orient creates rainbow hues on the surface and is used to judge quality.

Since they are natural small impurities on the surface are accepted. Flaking, holes or cracks are not though. It is is called spotless if no impurities can be seen with the naked eye.

The thickness of the nacre may be the reason why two identical looking specimens may have different price. The longer the nucleus stays within the oyster, the thicker the layer of nacre, and the finer the outcome. The thickness of the nacre applies only to saltwater culturing. The freshwater ones are solid nacre.

Each pearl on a strand are compared to each other on how they match. They do not have to be identical, since not two are 100% alike, but they should match as much as possible.

A = near round
AA = mostly round
AAA = round

A = fair
AA = good
AAA = high

A = < 75% clean
AA = > 75% clean
AAA = > 95% clean

A = 0,25 mm to 0,35 mm
AA = 0,35 mm to 0,5 mm
AAA = over 0,5 mm

A = fair
AA = good
AAA = very good

The A – F system:

A – grade:
Extremely well shaped, white, high luster, very minor surface blemishes.

B – grade:
Well shaped, white to light cream, high luster, minor surface blemishes.

C - grade:
Irregular shape, off-white, medium luster, surface is irregular.

D – grade:
Same as C grade, but one or more of the characteristics are excessively bad.

F – grade:
For promotional purposes only. Not suitable for jewelry. Most is ground up for use in cosmetics.

How you can tell if it is fake:
There are several fake types on the market, most created with glass, ceramic or even plastic. The most famous ones are Majorcas. These fake ones are often called semi cultured. This is a misleading phrase, as there are no cultured types that are classified as such.

Any way, if you want high quality fake gems, Majorca and Swarovski are the ones of best quality. With time these beads lose their nacre looking exteriour, revealing the glass or crystal underneath.

There is a simple test to determine whether a pearl is real or fake. All you have to do is to rub it against one of your teeth. If it feels slightly rough, it is a real. If smooth, it is fake.

Also check all the gems on the strand. If they are uniform in both size, shape and color, you are most likely dealing with fake pearls. Real gems have minor differences in shape, color and size.

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