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What Is Pearl - Gemstone Facts and Information

| 16 min read

Pearl is one of the oldest, most desired and most spectacular gemstones in the world. Formed differently to most gems, Pearl is an organic creation found in the sea, a natural phenomena that actually occurs as part of the defense mechanism of a mollusc shell. Coming in all shapes, sizes and colors, Pearl has shown itself to be remarkably versatile when it comes to jewelry design, and has a fascinating and rich history built up over thousands and thousands of years. Here, we delve a little deeper into the story of this most classic of gemstones.

THE HISTORY OF PEARL

Pearl has long been known as the queen of gemstones. They are one of the most precious gems ever discovered, and are believed to have been revered and traded as long as 6,000 years ago. Their exact moment of discovery precedes recorded history, though it has been speculated my many, including noted gemologist George Frederick Kunz, that the first Pearls to be held by human hands were likely discovered on the shores of India as fish-eating locals searched for food. Pearls were being given as ornamental gifts in Ancient China as far back as 2,250 BC and have been used in jewelry as personal adornment since at least 450 BC.

Pearl Infographic

A symbol of power and wealth, Pearls were incredibly highly valued in Ancient Egypt, where Mother-of-Pearl (the lining of the mollusk from which a Pearl is bore) had been used since at least 4,200 BC. Legend says that Cleopatra (69 BC - 30 BC) was able to use a Pearl to win a bet whilst meeting with the Roman general Marc Antony, whom she later wed. Her wager was that she could serve the most expensive dinner of all time. She took off one of her Pearl earrings, crushed the gem into her wine and drank it down. When Antony was offered the other earring to do the same with, he instead conceded, losing the bet. Modern estimates put the value of those Pearls at more than £3 million each.

Pearl Jewelry

There are many myths and legends surrounding Pearls, and one of the most common sayings is ‘Pearls bring tears’. This originates from ancient times when people thought that Pearls were the tears of angels or of the moon. Despite the widespread use of this phrase, most cultures actually believe the opposite to be true, such as the Greeks. To this day, the Greeks regard Pearls highly for their beauty, and associate them with love and marriage. They believe Pearls promote marital bliss and prevent the bride from crying on her wedding day, which is where the tradition of giving Pearls to a bride originated.

In Ancient Rome, Pearls were recognized as a definitive sign of wealth and social status and it was believed that they would promote a long and healthy life. When battling during the Crusades, knights would wear them as a talisman, believing they would help protect them. During the Renaissance period, Pearls were regarded so highly that some countries passed laws allowing only the nobility to wear them. It has also come to symbolize eternal life due to its shape and history. Pearls were once feared to be fragile but with the right care they can last a legacy.

Pearls were once almost unattainable and reserved for only royalty and the extremely wealthy. The La Peregrina Pearl, one of the most famous Pearls of all time, has a 500 year history which has seen it pass through three monarchs and a Hollywood film star. It was depicted in a painting of Mary 1 of England in 1554, and eventually made its way to auction in 2011 as part of the sell-off of Elizabeth Taylor’s phenomenal jewelry collection. It fetched a staggering $11 million, way above the $3 million estimate. Its future now lies with the anonymous bidder who won the auction. Pearls remained incredibly scarce and valuable into the early 20th century. In 1917, when Pierre Cartier wanted to move his thriving jewelry business into a $1 million mansion on Fifth Avenue in new York, he paid for the new premises with a strand of natural Pearls that had been valued for roughly the same amount.

Throughout the vast majority of history, all Pearls were natural and there was a tremendous amount of good fortune required in finding one. With demand outstripping supply by such a large degree, Japanese entrepreneur Mikimoto Kokichi set out to discover a way to cultivate Pearls and bring an element of stability to their availability. In 1893 he made a revolutionary breakthrough when he and his wife Ume successfully cultured a Pearl under human supervision, and over the following years he perfected his technique, a combination of art and science. We are now able to culture Pearls in special oyster nurseries where these mystifying creatures are protected and tended to by expert guardians. Each mollusc is painstakingly cared for over a number of years, allowing nature to do what she always does best - create a stunning gemstone. Without the advent of Cultured Pearls, owning them would still be the reserve of only the very wealthiest, though completely natural Pearls remain rare and very, very expensive.

PEARL GEMSTONE INFORMATION

Pearl is one of the birthstones for June (along with Alexandrite and Moonstone) and is the given stone for the 3rd and 30th wedding anniversaries. A Pearl is one of just a handful of organic gems (the other well-known ones being Coral, Amber and Jet). Rather than being a mineral, Pearls actually grow inside a mollusc, a term used for all shells that open and close on a hinge, such as oysters, clams, and mussels. Organic gemstones don’t usually have a traditional crystal structure or composition, but Pearl is made up of calcium carbonate (mostly Aragonite), which features an orthorhombic crystal structure. This builds the Pearl up in concentric layers, leading to the unique visual quality that Pearls display.

South Sea Pearl ring in yellow gold

Pearl formation is fascinating, and is totally different to how other gemstones form. If a foreign object, such as a grain of sand, enters a mollusc it becomes an irritant to the creature inside, so in order to protect itself it releases a silky substance, known as nacre (essentially Mother-of-Pearl, which also lines the shell), to cover the uninvited guest. Over time the mollusc will continue to release nacre over the foreign body and when the mollusc is opened years after the initial intrusion, the uninvited guest has been turned into a glorious Pearl. Pearls essentially exist as the result of a defense mechanism. It is amazing to think how nature can turn an unwelcome grain of sand into one of the most gorgeous gems in the world. Learning and understanding the growth and development of a Pearl is the first step towards truly appreciating how unusual and precious this gem really is.

Over 99% of Pearls sold today worldwide are Cultured Pearls.

It's fascinating to think that natural Pearls form deep in the ocean, and are then discovered by divers, but at what expense are we retrieving these treasures? Diving for Pearls can be destructive to the coral reefs and local sea life alike, and therefore it has been prohibited in many areas. It has been said that to make a Pearl necklace of entirely natural Pearls would require over 100,000 oysters to be retrieved. This is why Mikimoto’s Cultured Pearl technique is so important, and so widely accepted. But what is a Cultured Pearl? Cultured Pearls refer to Pearls that are grown in environmentally-friendly Pearl farms, and are tended to by Pearl farmers. Simply put, a Cultured Pearl is one that is grown under supervision and not one that is taken from its natural surroundings. The complex process begins with the Pearl farmer inserting a shell bead or similar into the oyster, and then submerging it back into water in order to begin the natural mechanism of the oyster covering this in nacre. The term 'Cultured Pearl' alone tends to mean that the Pearl has been cultivated in the ocean (saltwater) whereas 'Freshwater Cultured Pearl' refers to those that are cultivated inland in lakes. Over 99% of Pearls sold today worldwide are Cultured Pearls of one type or the other.

Maruata Pearl ring in yellow gold

Today, most natural Pearls are found in estate jewelry collections or museums, so when buying new Pearls, it is not really a case of natural Pearls versus Cultured Pearls, but Cultured Pearls versus entirely synthetic, man-made Pearls. If you own Pearls and are not sure if they are genuine or not, a great way to test them is to rub them on your teeth. If the Pearl feels slightly grainy rather than smooth, it’s a real pearl, be that natural or cultured. If it’s smooth, however, you know it is not a real Pearl, as companies who produce imitation, synthetic Pearls have yet to master the grainy effect of natural nacre. Quite often these imitations are just plastic or glass made to look like a Pearl. Needless to say, all the Pearls we sell at Gemporia are genuine Cultured Pearls.

Pearl jewelry

Round, flawless, and orient are words you’ll hear relating to Pearls and these are qualities used to determine their value. The word round seems a bit of an obvious one to describe a Pearl but it is in fact the most important. It’s a common mistake to think Pearls have been faceted in some way to give them their perfect spherical shape, when in fact the shape of a Pearl is all down to the work done by the mollusc. Because no two Pearls are identical in shape or size, it takes a skilled jeweler hours and hours to select matching Pearls when stringing them together for necklaces and bracelets. The finest Pearls do not have any flaws, bumps or marks in the nacre and they should have an even and clean surface. The final consideration when valuing Pearls is their orient. This is the word used to describe the luster of a Pearl (also referred to as pearlescence). The orient is a soft iridescence caused by the refraction of light off the layers of nacre.

Every Pearl is individually graded on five virtues, the first of which is its luster. The luster of a Pearl is the most important factor but also the hardest to determine. However, with a trained eye it becomes an instinctive process. A Pearl’s complexion is under significant scrutiny as any imperfections may alter their value. At Gemporia we strictly grade our Pearls for luster, complexion, shape, color and size, and use only the finest Pearls for our jewelry collections. Pearls are perhaps the best-loved gem of all time - natural and cultured - and they occur in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder, so when looking for new designs, always pick the Pearls that speak to you.

PEARL CRYSTAL HEALING

Gemstones are as old as time and in the years since their first discovery they've picked up a lot more than adoring collectors and fascinated mineralogists. Many have gained stories regarding their legend, lore and healing properties, and whilst there's no evidence to suggest that any of these properties are real, it's still interesting to explore the esoteric side of Mother Nature's miracles. It's worth asking ourselves, "If you truly believe in something, does that mean it's true"? Scientifically, the answer is no, but what about on a more personal, spiritual level? If you really truly believe that an item in your house is having an effect on you, are you more likely to feel that effect? It's really not for us to say, but it's a very interesting concept that deserves further research. Once again though, we must point out though that no studies have ever found any therapeutic effects or properties in gemstones, and the following is for your information only.

Pearl has been said to represent the wisdom gained through personal experience, and has been thought to offer a calming effect on its wearer and to help balance the aura. It has been linked with holding cynicism and pessimism at bay, and in keeping one grounded in reality. Over its long history it has also been said to help one focus on the important things in life and let the rest go, and to help nurture a higher sense of love both for oneself and closest friends and family too. Due to the Pearl's shape it has often been associated with the moon. In Asia, Pearls were once thought to guarantee protection from fire whereas in Europe they symbolized modesty, chastity and purity.

GEMOLOGICAL PROPERTIES OF PEARL

  • Color White, pink, yellow, orange, silver, cream, purple, golden, brown, green, blue, black
  • Family Organics
  • Mohs Scale Hardness 2.5 - 4.5
  • Specific Gravity 2.60 - 2.85
  • Refractive Index 1.52 - 1.66
  • Luster Pearly
  • Crystal System Orthorhombic
  • Transparency Translucent
  • Chemical Formula CaCO3
  • Composition Calcium Carbonate

WHERE DO PEARLS COME FROM?

Pearl mine map

Where do Pearls come from? Well, those known as Freshwater Cultured Pearls are created using freshwater river mussels and farmed from sources mostly in Japan and China. Cultured Pearls (without 'Freshwater' in the description) are created using saltwater Pearl oysters and are largely farmed from the oceans around the Philippines, Australia and French Polynesia. The variance in locale and the mollusc used to create this organic gem give us the different hues of Pearl, leading to the wonderful selection of colors we are able to offer at Gemporia. We get our luxury Cultured Pearls (South Sea, Maruata and Tahitian) from sixth-generation Pearl trader Charlie Barron, who often accompanies his magnificent Pearls when they appear on our live auction channel. To learn more about Charlie Barron and his fascinating life with Pearls, click here. We're going to go into more detail on there three varieties, along with Chinese sourced Kaori Cultured Pearls, below.

PEARL VARIETIES

South Sea Cultured Pearl

The Pinctada Maxima silver-lipped oyster is found in Australia and produces incredible white-silver Pearls. It is considered the largest and rarest of the Pearl oysters, and is valued highly not just because of the Pearls created, but also because of the sheer quality of its Mother-of-Pearl, which is sought after in its own right. The farm from where these Pearls are sourced is harboured in the perfect spot (chosen from a long history of trial and error), allowing the oyster to absorb the rich nutrients and minerals from the immaculate waters that surround it. These oysters are tended by hand, painstakingly cleaned and protected in the deep from their formidable predators and environment. The oyster’s gift is a perfect silver-white Pearl, each one a unique treasure from the deep. There is also a golden-lipped Pinctada Maxima oyster which provides a sublime golden variety of South Sea Pearl. Pearls from these waters can very rarely display other subtle variations in hue.

South Sea Pearls About South Sea Pearls Meet Charlie Barron

Tahitian Cultured Pearl

In the atolls and lagoons of French Polynesia exists a unique paradise that brings the world the Tahitian Pearl. This Pearl is a relative newcomer to the market, having been popularized in the later 19th century. It is a natural, dark, exotic Pearl sometimes known as a Black Pearl, though they actually come in every color other than jet black. Its myriad of different colors make strands of striking Pearls that are almost impossible to produce and extremely difficult to match. Behind every great Pearl is its oyster. The Mother-of-Pearl that brings us this Tahitian variety is the illustrious and legendary Pinctada Margaritifera or black-lipped Pearl oyster. Rarely has one of the most expensive Pearls on the planet run the risk of being upstaged by its host, but this is a testament to this beautiful and mysterious oyster.

Tahitian Pearls Tahitian Pearls Meet Charlie Barron

Maruata Cultured Pearl

Maruata Pearls are sourced in the crystal clear waters of French Polynesia, like their Tahitian counterparts mentioned above. The Maruata Pearl nursery has a world-class reputation for producing some of the very finest Black Pearls on the market, and the farmers care for and nurture the Pinctada Margaritifera oysters on a daily basis. The oysters are regularly cleaned and moved into new areas of perfect temperature and suitability should the ideal cultivation conditions fluctuate. The reason we differentiate between Tahitian and Maruata Pearls at Gemporia, even though they share a provenance, is because Maruata Pearls are afforded extra time to grow - normally 21 months to two years where other Pearls may be given 12 to 18 months. To signify their longer gestation period and resultant larger size, we only set Maruata Pearls into gold when making our Pearl jewelry.

Maruata Pearls About Maruata Pearls Meet Charlie Barron

Kaori Cultured Pearl

Some of the world’s most beautiful Freshwater Cultured Pearls come from the Kaori Pearl nursery, one of the biggest Pearl farms in China, where they take a considerable amount of time to cultivate their finished Pearls. Their reputation within the industry is stellar, and over the years we have been able to build up a fantastic working relationship with Kaori, often allowing us to take the first refusal on top quality Pearls from their hand-picked oysters as soon as they’re ready for harvest. The freshwater lakes of China offer ideal growing conditions for these fine quality Pearls and offer up a range of shapes, sizes and color hues that allow for an incredible variety of designs for our finished pieces. From classic Pearl necklaces and effortlessly wearable Pearl bracelets to dainty rings and highly stylish pendants, the Pearl is timeless; it never goes out of fashion, its elegance transcends generations, and we’re very proud of all of the different Pearl collections we can offer here at Gemporia.

Kaori Pearls

A Pearl in an oyster

HOW TO CLEAN PEARL

Despite originating underwater, it is recommended not to submerge Pearls in water when caring for them. Use a very soft lint-free microfiber cloth to gently clean your Pearls, and if you need a little help, dampen part of the cloth with some mildly soapy lukewarm water. Dry them immediately with a dry part of the cloth. Don't use any heat to dry excess moisture, though you can gently blow on them to evaporate any extra liquid. Pay particular attention to the string if cleaning necklaces and bracelets - keep it as dry as you can. Don't take your Pearls anywhere near a steam or ultrasonic cleaner.

Jewelry Cleaning Methods

HOW TO CARE FOR PEARL

Pearl comes in at between 2.5 and 4.5 on the Mohs scale, making it arguably the most popular gemstone to be so low on the famed hardness table - even a fingernail can be hard enough to scratch a Pearl at the bottom end of this range. However, taking good care of your Pearls isn't at all laborious. The most important thing to do when wearing Pearls is to put them on last when you're getting ready as they're vulnerable to all sorts of cosmetic products such as perfume and hairspray. Likewise, take them off first when you're done. Keep them safely stored away from other jewelry and away from extreme temperature and light sources. Give them a wipe down with a soft cloth after wearing, and if you have Pearls that are strung in a necklace or bracelet remember to periodically check the state of the threading material. They may occasionally need re-stringing. When cared for properly, Pearls will last a lifetime. Wear them often as the body’s natural oils help maintain the Pearl’s orient (pearlescence).

Jewelry Boxes

WHERE TO BUY PEARL

We're very proud of the quality of Pearl we are able to offer you here at Gemporia, and we work hard to ensure that our designs do justice to the incredible work done by Charlie Barron and the other Pearl cultivators that we partner with. Your perfect Pearl jewelry piece lies just a few clicks away from this page, and you can begin the journey of finding that piece by following one of the links below. We wish you many years of happiness with your new Pearls.

All Rings Earrings Necklaces Bracelets Pendants