Pearls, the gem of Queens and the queen of gems. These little spherical gems, grown in oysters (or mussels in freshwater), are amazing accidents of nature. Pearls are the natural reaction of the oyster to an irritant. A genuine pearl (whether occurring naturally or cultured) starts with a grain of sand or a small foreign object that becomes lodged within the oyster. As a reaction, the oyster secretes a substance to cover the irritant and soften its edges, making it less irritating. This substance is called nacre. Over time, layer upon layer of nacre is applied to the irritant and thus a pearl is born. The more layers of nacre, the larger the pearl, the deeper the shine and lustre on the surface - the more beautiful the pearl!
Both naturally occurring and cultured pearls are genuine pearls (vs. imitation pearls which are man made beads of glass or other materials which are made to look like pearls). Natural pearls happen by accident in the oyster and are found by accident as well, making them rare and valuable. On the other hand cultured pearls are “farmed”. Oysters are suspended on racks in ponds, irritants are inserted, time passes while the oyster covers the irritant with layers of nacre, and then after a number of years the pearls are harvested. As a result of this human intervention cultured pearls are more plentiful. And that means that what used to be the exclusive purview of royalty and aristocrats is now more abundant and affordable.
The quality, size and shape of freshwater cultured pearls vary widely with the depth and quality of the nacre being the greatest determinant of quality. Some pearl farmers pull their crop too early (trying to cash in) before the nacre layers have gotten deep enough and hard enough. This impatience creates an inferior pearl. Oysters require two or more years to create a beautiful pearl.
Once pearls leave the belly of the oyster, they need people in order to remain beautiful. If they are left unworn in a vault or a drawer, they can turn yellow and brittle. But worn on the skin they become more luminescent. Stories abound through history of palace servants warming their mistress’s pearls by wearing them while doing chores during the day so that when the mistress donned them in the evening they would be warm and luminous.
Here are a few of the dimensions to consider when assessing pearls:
Size - ranges dramatically from small seed pearls to 20mm or larger.
Luster - is the depth and glow on the surface of a pearl. It is an indication of the amount of time the pearl spent in the oyster and the number of layers of nacre that the oyster applied to the pearl. Pearls should have a luminous glow and depth.
Shape - can vary greatly, especially with many of the newer cultured pearl processes. As for round pearls, one rarely finds a perfectly round pearl. In fact today many interesting shapes add value and interest, such as baroque, stick or coin shapes.
Surface - the surface of a pearl, while never without a blemish, should be smooth and without cracks or peeling. Again, some pearls have unique and interesting surface bumps and textures that can make them more valuable and interesting.
Color - natural pearls are white, cream or black. Otherwise, there is a huge industry of dyed and color treated pearls. Today a cultured pearl can be had in almost any shade of any color!