The History of Pearls
The pearl is the oldest known gem, and for centuries it was considered the most valuable. A fragment of the oldest known pearl jewelry, found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who died in 520 BC, is displayed in the Louvre in Paris. To the ancients, pearls were a symbol of the moon and had magical powers. In classical Rome, only persons above a certain rank were allowed to wear pearl jewelry. Pearls have been considered ideal wedding gifts because they symbolize purity and innocence. In the Hindu religion, the presentation of an undrilled pearl and its piercing has become part of the marriage ceremony.

The Latin word for pearl means "unique” which attests to the fact that no two pearls are identical. In the romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian), margarita means pearl. The word pearl appeared in the English language in the fourteenth century. In the Americas, both the Incas and Aztecs prized pearls for their beauty and magical powers. Spanish explorers of the New World found the natives in possession of rich pearl fisheries. For many years, the New World was best known in European cities like Seville and Cadiz as the land where pearls came from.

Most European countries in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had laws regarding who could and could not wear pearls. Teachers and lawyers, for example, could not wear fringes or chains with pearls.

What Is A Cultured Pearl?
A cultured pearl is any pearl that was created with the assistance of a human. A pearl is cultured by opening a live mollusk slightly and inserting a small piece of mantle tissue or a small pearl into the mantle of the animal. This nucleation process of introducing a foreign object causes the mollusk to protect itself by covering the inserted material with a substance called nacre. Once “nucleated”, the animal is then attached to a wire frame and the frame is suspended from a float in the water from which the animal came either seawater in the case of salt water pearls or fresh water lakes in the case of fresh water pearls.

A single mussel from fresh water can produce 10 or more pearls. Natural colors can range from white, lavender, peach, or pink.

Nearly all pearls sold today are cultured pearls. Freshwater pearls are from mussels while saltwater pearls are from oysters. The chemical produced by the freshwater pearl mussel that forms the pearls is identical to the chemical produced by the saltwater pearl oyster. Several inventors at the beginning of the 20th century discovered techniques of pearl cultivation, Kokichi Mikimoto being the most famous of these inventors. Although some innocently consider Japan to be the source of all pearls, China has been producing tissue-nucleated pearls for over thirty years, but it was not until recently that high quality round pearls began to appear. Learning how to improve production techniques, the Chinese have steadily improved their crops, creating larger, rounder and brighter pearls than ever thought possible.

Changes in the Pearl Industry
The new Freshwater Cultured Pearls from China change everything that has been constant in the pearl industry for the past 80 years. Since the late ‘90’s China has been producing high quality pearls that buyers thought were only available in Japan---and at a fraction of the cost. Japan's current pollution problems at the source of their salt water production facilities, plus an overcrowding of oysters, and a mysterious and uncontrolled virus has decimated much of the Japanese pearl crop. In comparison, China's clear abundant fresh water lakes are the perfect environment for growing quality pearls, and the market demand is growing as Chinese production quality matures.

Superior attributes of Chinese Freshwater Pearls
Chinese freshwater pearls have the highest nacre to nucleus ratio of any pearl on the market. The nacre is the pearl skin deposited around the center nucleus by the animal. Many Chinese freshwater pearls exhibit 90% or more nacre surrounding the tiny tissue nucleus. High amounts of nacre increase the quality and durability of pearls, and allow for a high luster that discriminating buyers appreciate. The traditional nucleation using a large round shell bead or inferior pearl can account for 80% of the content of salt water pearls from Japan and the South Sea thereby lowering their luster and durability. After harvesting, the pearls are often polished by hand or tumbled with cork powder to bring up the luster.

A wide variety of shapes are produced by the fresh water mollusk as a result of the shape of the mantle tissue that is inserted to begin the culturing process. In addition to round pearls, the Chinese produce ovals, coins, drops, and an infinite collection of odd shaped baroques. Spectacular ranges of natural colors are miraculously produced, including lavender, pink, plum, purple, cocoa, peach and tangerine shades. From pastels to intense colors, China has created a new "pearl palette" to compliment all of the fashion colors in existence. China can produce 40 pearls per mollusk, compared to as little as 1 pearl per oyster in Japan. Combined with the lowered labor costs in China, and the elimination of the use of a costly bead nucleus, fine Chinese pearls sell for a fraction of their Japanese counterparts in larger sizes. Plus, smaller sizes in off round shapes compete with price ranges of costume jewelry. Considered by many to be the finest matched necklaces on the market, China exceeds other pearl supplier’s ability to create necklaces with little or no variation between pearls.

Historic Meaning of the various pearl colors:

White: Symbol of Purity

Rose, Pink: Symbol of Love

Golden: Symbol of Wealth

Peacock Green: Symbol of Romance

Sapphire Blue: Symbol of Eternity

Black: Symbol of Dignity

Judging Pearl Quality

Luster is the quantity and quality of light reflected from the surface of a pearl. Luster does not simply mean a shiny surface: it implies the structural beauty of the nacre. High luster pearls also have a deep-seated glow. The luster of a good quality pearl should be bright and not dull. You should be able to see your own reflection clearly on the surface of a very high luster pearl. Reflected images of overhead lights are crisp and distinct in higher luster pearls while they are smudgy and washed-out in the dull ones. Any pearl that appears too white, dull or chalky indicates low luster.

Nacre Thickness
Nacre is the coating that the mollusk forms around the nucleus of the pearl. Nacre thickness is more than the amount of nacre. The structure of the nacre is composed of thousands of layers of thin calcium carbonate crystals. This distinctive nacre structure influences the color, luster, durability and elasticity of the pearl.

Do higher luster pearls have a longer life? Yes! High luster is an indicator of good nacre thickness and, as such, is an assurance of durability. The thicker the nacre coating on a pearl, the longer it will last.

All the factors that disturb the surface smoothness of the pearl and hence decide its appearance are called blemishes and imperfections. The quality of the pearl is greatly affected by blemishes. Natural blemishes are formed during pearl cultivation. By definition, a blemish is anything that can be seen by the eye.


Overtone(s) are the colors that overlie the body color. White pearls with rosé or silver overtones have the highest value. . Overtone is one or two colors that overlie the body color. When inspecting white pearls under light, you may see color in the central dark areas of the pearls. This is the overtone. Overtone colors include pink, silver, and green.

The rounder a pearl is, the higher its value. Pearl shapes are generally split into four levels: Semi-baroque and baroque, Off round, Slightly off round, Round. Semi-baroque and baroque are pear-shaped or irregular shaped and are listed separately. Off-round pearls have flattening on one side or are oval. Shape is important in judging pearls. Baroque pearls have irregular, distorted shapes, but can be quite beautiful and unique.

Pearl color is a combination of body color and overtone. Body color is the predominant basic color of the pearl. When comparing the color of pearls, place them on a white surface. Body color can be best seen on the outer edge of the pearl. Natural body colors include white, light pink or pink, light cream, and dark cream, yellow or golden. You should remember that pearl color for the purposes of grading is not a measure of the beauty of pearls or your choice of pearl color

Different Varieties of Pearls

In addition to the main types of pearls there are the pearl oddities: mabe’ pearls, keshii pearls, circle pearls, and abalone pearls.

Mabe’ Pearls

Mabe’ Pearls are half pearls, and are sometimes called blister pearls. Basically they are grown by attaching a nucleus to the inside of the shell and letting it be covered by nacre on one side. When the process is finished, mabe’s look like bumps on the inside of the mollusk shell. They are cut out of the shell and backed with mother of pearl. Sometimes farmers use other shapes: pears, crosses, or whatever they desire. Mabe’ are the most inexpensive of pearl varieties. Some believe that they should be called composite pearls since the backing isn't really pearl and there is just a thin dome of nacre.

Abalone Pearls
Abalone pearls aren't really pearls; they are mabe’s formed in Abalone shells from New Zealand and Mexico. What makes them interesting is the color: abalone shells have brilliant blues and greens unlike any other variety. Still, you pay a lot for those colors. Abalone mabe’s are five times the price of regular mabe’ pearls

Keshii Pearls
Keshii means "tiny" in Japanese and keshii pearls usually are small. They are accidents: sometimes in the pearl culturing process, a tiny bit of other material is introduced.

The mollusk coats this too and the result is a small accidental pearl. It's almost a natural pearl, virtually all nacre, in random free-form shapes. Of course, since Tahitian and South Sea oysters are larger, keshii from these varieties are much larger.
In fact, spectacular necklaces can be created from Tahitian keshii, which are lustrous and look a little like dark freshwater pearls.

Circle Pearls
Circle pearls are ridged pearls that have concentric grooves round their diameters, like three dimensional latitude lines striping the surface. Circle pearls are most common from Tahiti and Tahitian Circle pearls often have remarkable iridescent luster. Recently some circle pearls from China have also appeared on the market.

Japanese Akoya Pearls come from the Akoya oyster.
Akoya oysters are also used by the Chinese to produce saltwater cultured pearls. Mikimoto pearls come from the Akoya oyster and are the best-known Japanese saltwater cultured pearls. Japanese Akoya pearls are the most difficult to grow due to the low survival rates of the host oysters. Less than 5 in 10 will survive the nucleation process. Of the survivors, about 40% will successfully encircle the shell nucleus irritant with nacre. Overall, less than 5% of pearl output can be considered "high quality." At the center of every Japanese cultured pearl lies an American heart. Shell beads used as nuclei in the cultured pearl process come from freshwater mussels grown in the U.S.

South Sea pearls
South Sea pearls, also called White South Sea pearls, are saltwater pearls cultivated using the Pinctada maxima oyster (as called the silver lip or gold lip oyster), also known as the Silver-Lipped oyster, found in the South Seas (an area centered around Northern Australia and South-East Asia including Myanmar and Indonesia). They produce 10-20 mm pearls of silver or gold color. For centuries, pearl divers harvested these exotic shells for their valuable Mother of Pearl shell to make buttons. Occasionally pearls were found inside, and these pearls were regarded as a rare and valuable bonus.

Tahitian Black Pearls
Tahitian Blacks, also called South Sea Black pearls, are grown in the waters of French Polynesia. They are saltwater pearls from the Pinctada margaritifera or black-lipped oyster and can range from gray to black with red, green or blue overtones. This oyster also is found in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia, the Philippines, Panama, and the Gulf of Mexico. An adult Pinctada oyster can reach a diameter of 30 centimeters, with weight exceeding 5 kilograms (over 10 pounds). Rare specimens as large as 9 kilograms (over 19 pounds), in fact, have been harvested. It takes about two years before the oyster ready for harvesting. Only about 30 percent of the oysters cultured produce a pearl.

Freshwater Cultured Pearls Freshwater cultured pearls suffer from stereotypes. Most people, when they hear "freshwater pearls" think of "rice krispie" pearls: rice shaped wrinkled and very inexpensive pearls that sell for about a buck a strand. These inexpensive pearls were produced by the container load in China in the eighties. The market was flooded with them. Department stores sold twists of twenty strands, they had their fashion moment and shortly thereafter, they went out of style and the market died.

The farmers in China were forced to change their strategy. Instead of producing tons of cheap pearls, some farms switched to a different freshwater mussel and started to leave pearls in the water longer. They also discovered that they could grind small irregular reject pearls into round nuclei and put them back into the pearls to grow bigger, rounder premium sizes

The result? Beginning just a few years ago, China started to produce an entire new range of fresh water pearl qualities: 6 to 8mm white freshwater pearls that look just like Akoya pearls (although they are sometimes off-round), and 6mm to 9mm fancy colored pearls, round to off round, in lavenders, pinks, and peaches; and a few rare large round strands in mixed fancy colors that are similar in size and feeling to mixed color Tahitian strands. The bulk of production of Chinese freshwater pearls is still commercial quality pearls that rival commercial quality Akoya pearls at half the price.
Although today's freshwater pearl production is overwhelmingly from China, you will still hear people talk about Biwa pearls. These were high quality freshwater pearls produced in Lake Biwa in Japan. Production has basically stopped due to pollution. Usually people who use this term today are referring to a high quality freshwater pearl, but this is a misnomer.

The Various Lengths of Pearls
Cultured pearls are everywhere! The most popular type of pearl jewelry is the pearl necklace but there are other types of pearl jewelry available. There are cultured pearl bracelets, rings, earrings, pins and brooches and pendants. Tasteful cultured pearl jewelry for men includes tie tacks, stickpins, cufflinks and formal shirt studs.
Collar -- 12 - 13 inches.
Pearl collars are usually made up of three or more strands and lie snugly on the middle of the neck. Very Victorian and luxurious, pearl collars go best with elegant V-neck, boat neck or off the shoulder fashion

Choker -- 14 - 16 inches.
A pearl choker is perhaps the most classic and yet versatile of all the single strand lengths. A simple pearl choker can go with virtually any outfit from casual to fancy eveningwear and just about any neckline imaginable.
Princess -- 17 - 19 inches.
The princess length necklace is best suited for crew and high necklines. It also compliments low plunging necklines. It's perfect support for a pendant or pearl enhancer
Matinee -- 20 - 24 inches.
Longer than the princess, and just a bit shorter than an opera length, the matinee necklace is the right choice for casual or business dressing
Opera -- 28 - 34 inches.
The opera necklace is the queen of all lengths. When worn as a single strand, it is refined and perfect for high or crew necklines. When doubled upon itself, it serves as a versatile two-strand choker
Rope – over 34 inches.
The rope has great versatility as it can be knotted, doubled or tripled upon itself to create various shorter lengths and looks.

Care of your Pearls
Pearls are very soft and need special care. They never should be tossed on top of or next to other gems in a jewelry box. Store them in a jewelry pouch.
Some women's skin is more acid than others. If a pearl necklace is regularly worn, as it should be, some of the pearls will constantly be in close contact with the woman's skin on her neck at the shoulder line. The pearls in the necklace will gradually absorb acid from the skin and the acid will slowly eat into the spherical pearl. Over time the pearl may lose its luster or will become barrel-shaped. You can slow this process by wiping the pearls with a soft cloth after wearing them.

Besides being soft, pearls are easily damaged by chemicals like perfume, vinegar and lemon juice. Heat can turn pearls brown or dry them out and make them crack. Dry air can also damage pearls. Most safe deposit vaults have very dry air and can damage pearls. When taking off a pearl ring, grasp the shank, or metal part, rather than the pearl. This will prevent the pearl from loosening and coming into contact with skin oil on your hand.

Because of their delicate nature, special care must be taken when cleaning.

• Only use jewelry cleaners labeled as safe for pearls.

• Never use an ultrasonic cleaner.

• Never steam-clean pearls.

• Never use (or expose pearls) to dish or wash detergents, bleaches,
   powdered cleansers, baking soda, or ammonia-based cleaners
  (like Windex).

• Never use toothbrushes, scouring pads or abrasive materials to clean

• Do not wear pearls when their string is wet. Wet strings stretch and attract
  dirt, which is hard to remove.

• Do not hang pearls to dry.

• Take your pearls off when applying cosmetics, hair spray, and perfume, or
  when showering or swimming.

• Have your pearls restrung once a year if you wear them often.
  Cleaning Pearls

After you wear pearls, just wipe them off with a soft cloth or chamois, which may be dry or damp. This will prevent dirt from accumulating and keep perspiration, which is slightly acidic, from eating away at the pearl nacre. You can even use a drop of olive oil on the cloth to help maintain their luster.

If pearls have not been kept clean and are very dirty, they should only be cleaned by your jeweler or they can be cleans using special pearl cleaner. DO NOT use other types of jewelry cleaners or soap. Some liquid soap, such as Dawn, can damage pearls. Pay attention to the areas around the drill holes where dirt may tend to collect.

After washing your pearls, lay them flat in a moist kitchen towel to dry. When the towel is dry, your pearls should be dry.

About every six months have a jewelry professional verify that the pearls on your jeweler are securely mounted or that the string is still good. Many jewelers will do this free of charge, and they'll be happy to answer your questions about the care of your jewelry.

PEARL CARE from the University of Wisconsin.

















































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