What Are Pearls?

Nature’s creations are wondrous and incredible, from volcanoes to rainbows and everything in between.While man can create beautiful works of art, nature’s mediums and materials are even more spectacular because of the science and mystery that surround them. One of nature’s most magical creations is the pearl, the only gemstone that is formed inside a living organism: a mollusk.

Unlike other gemstones formed and mined from the earth, pearls begin as a small foreign object embedded into the soft inner part of a mollusk. When the object is detected by the mollusk, it goes into defense mode to protect itself. This is the beginning stages of a pearl.

As the mollusk protects itself, it secretes a substance called nacre, surrounding the object layer after layer with a crystalline, hard shell. This protects the mollusk from any damage or pain from the irritant … and the result? A perfectly formed, smooth, iridescent pearl.

A Brief History

Since ancient times, pearls have been a highly sought-after prized gem. They represented wealth, royalty, and social standing. Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony that she could consume the most expensive dinner in the world, serving an entire nation’s wealth in one meal. He accepted and watched as she crushed a pearl, put it into a glass of wine and drank it. He conceded the win.

Because wild pearls have commanded a high price, kings and queens have worn them during coronations, knights wore them into battle for protection, and many noble women were revered for their private collections. Saltwater pearls created from oysters have historically only been available to nobles and the very rich. According to the Nova program “The Perfect Pearl,”the historian Suetonius wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings.

Wild pearls are formed naturally in nature when a foreign object enters a mollusk in an unintentional way. These pearls are extremely rare and expensive because they are 100% nacre, the substance the mollusk uses to protect itself from the foreign object. However, thanks to the entrepreneurship of Kokichi Mikimoto and his wife Ume, the production of pearls skyrocketed. Their goal was simple: to entice oysters to create pearls on demand.

Through trial and error, using a wide variety of different materials, they were successful in their endeavor. Mikimoto found the highest success with shell bits of U.S. mussels, cultivating pearls that rivaled wild and rare versions. His process is tied directly to Akoya pearls, named for the type of small oyster from which they are cultivated. The name today still holds great respect in the world of pearl cultivation.

A Gem of Quality

Luster, surface, shape, color, and size are the five factors in which the quality of pearls are measured. Like all gems, there are high standards set for quality, which affects the value of the gems. The standard for Akoya pearls is the highest, which is why they have such an impeccable reputation.

Luster is described as the brilliance and reflectability of pearls, the inner glow of the gem. The range is from low to medium to high. For a Akoya pearl, the luster rating is the highest, because the hardness and thickness of the nacre outer shell. The pearls in Japan are cultivated in cooler water temperatures than many of the warmer places in the world, which causes the crystalline varnish to form more slowly and with more layers.

Referring to the surface of a pearl means the outer appearance and how many blemishes it has. Pearls can have bumps, spots, or wrinkles in them as a result of the cultivation process. The range is from “clean” to “ heavily blemished” and, of course, Akoya pearls have the highest standard. They are typically rated as clean, mostly due to their short cultivation time.

Pearls come in a wide range of shapes and categories, from round to baroque, tear drop to oval, and many more. The variety of shapes provide unique jewelry designs, but the traditional pearl is almost perfectly round. The Akoya pearls come in round, semi-round, baroque, and tear-drop shapes.

Unlike wild pearls, the range of colors for cultivated pearls is stunning and varied. From white to black, and everything in between, these pearls can be mixed and matched for exceptional fashion designs. Akoya pearls are no exception. They come in rose, silver, white, black, gold, gray, and blue.

The size of a pearl is determined by the length of time it is cultivated. The longer the cultivation period, the larger the pearl. The size range is typically from 1mm to 20mm, with an average of 7mm for quality production. The average size of an Akoya pearl is 7mm, though they have the same range as more average pearls.

The main difference between rare and cultivated pearls is the amount of nacre that makes up the gem. Cultured pearls are only about 10% nacre, significantly less than the wild counterparts. The industry of pearl cultivation transformed the gem market and the world of fashion, making them more accessible for all budgets.

Natural and Cultivated Pearl Production

The natural process for freshwater pearls is exactly the same as for saltwater, where a foreign object enters a mussel instead of an oyster. What makes the freshwater variety so special is the array of colors created in this process. In addition, freshwater cultivated pearls are made up of virtually 100% nacre, just like the natural, wild pearls.

Japan was the first country to culture freshwater pearls, shortly after they successfully perfected the process for saltwater pearls. They cultivated the freshwater pearls from Lake Biwa located near Kyoto, and the first crops began to hit the market in the 1930s. The colors they produced were stunning and in high demand, from iridescent purples and pinks to charcoal and copper.

Though World War II impacted the production of freshwater pearls at Lake Biwa, they resumed their output levels through the 1970s. They began to dwindle in farmable mussels, draining the resources they had, which led to a decline in availability. The void left in the market by Japan’s decreased production was quickly filled by China. With countless freshwater lakes and rivers, as well as a cheap labor force, China began massive production of these freshwater gems and, in 1968, they flooded the market with these inexpensive and substandard pearls.

The first wave of production could not come close to the Japanese quality, and they had nowhere near the incredible range of colors that Lake Biwa produced. The second wave barely impacted the market, but the third wave which began in the 1990s—that was a different story. The cultured pearls coming from China rivaled even the best coming out of Lake Biwa. Various sizes and shapes coupled with never-seen-before colors of peach and orange—China had finally reached success with their cultivation methods.

Making a Fashion Statement

One of the practices that is looked down upon is the dying, bleaching, and polishing of pearls. It does happen, and the primary reason is to create uniformity for the creation of a perfect set of beads. Natural or wild pearls are almost never touched in anyway, with the exception of the practice of sun bleaching in the Persian Gulf area. Typically, the Japanese and Chinese will use a combination of mild bleach, heat, and fluorescent light to perfect pearls for strands.

One of the practices that is looked down upon is the dying, bleaching, and polishing of pearls. It does happen, and the primary reason is to create uniformity for the creation of a perfect set of beads. Natural or wild pearls are almost never touched in anyway, with the exception of the practice of sun bleaching in the Persian Gulf area. Typically, the Japanese and Chinese will use a combination of mild bleach, heat, and fluorescent light to perfect pearls for strands.

Cultural Revolution

What has impacted the cultivation of freshwater and saltwater pearls alike are the processes which China has taken to whole new levels since the early 2000s. A new cultural revolution began, where they not only nucleate the soft inner body with shell nuclei, but also the mantle. This process has been found to produce almost perfectly round pearls, virtually indistinguishable from the natural or wild pearls. The nacre is found all the way through to the core of the pearl, literally making cultivated pearls as high in quality as natural ones.

The Chinese also began nucleating pearls with rejected or imperfect pearls, creating an even more round specimen requiring little to no buffing or bleaching. Some testers have even been fooled by these cultivated pearls, giving them a rating of natural instead of cultivated because they truly are that impressively perfect.

We would be remiss if we did not mention the pearls from other areas of the world. Australia and the Pacific Islands of the South Seas also produce pearls, fresh and saltwater alike. They have used the tried and true methods learned from the Japanese and, though they cannot match the output levels of China, their pearls are nonetheless beautiful and colorful, and capture the iridescent beauty for which these gems are known.

Pearls for Everyone

For bead companies, such as Beads of Cambay, the single most important factor in the selection process is quality. When supplying the world with the most beautiful gems in the world, the determining factors are not always price, but quality and availability. Sourcing these precious items is a serious business, and requires traveling around the world to find the best quality, whether in Japan, Tahiti, or Australia.

Because pearls are a water gem, they are softer than the hard diamonds and other gems found around the world. They require special care and consideration when transporting, wearing, and storing, to preserve the nacre and the iridescent look. Top quality bead companies preserve the pearls they purchase for their customers with the highest level of integrity to ensure they are delivered in the condition in which they were purchased.

One of the main reasons pearls are so widely popular is they are the only gem that universally looks good on everyone, regardless of skin tone or hair color. The iridescence of pearls has the same effect on a person as candlelight. It is an extremely flattering look, and, with the wide range of colors, there is a perfect strand for everyone. With the progress made over the last century, pearls are available for all of humanity to enjoy, not just the elite and wealthy.