Pearl EducationOver the past 20 years, the cultured pearl has gone through what may be the most profound identity shift that any gem has ever undergone. Once considered a white gem, like diamonds, the cultured pearl is now positioned as a colored stone with just about as many shades as, say, sapphire or tourmaline.
You can still see the classic rose-tinged white pearls from Japan in jewelry stores. But you're more likely to see black pearls from Tahiti, golden pearls from Indonesia and the Phillipines, and mauve and orange pearls from China, not Japan – and they're grown in freshwater lakes, not saltwater bays, using mussels rather than oysters.
This change in pearl-growing mollusk and locale has meant profound differences in the variety of pearls your jeweler offers. Some of these differences you can see, and some you can't. But they all add up to greater choice, higher quality and lower price, thanks to the many innovations in pearl culturing over the last 30 years.
Picking Out the Right Pearl for You
When it comes to choosing a pearl type for your necklace or earrings, there are now so many to choose from. Far more varieties, shapes and colors than in years past. The specific characteristics you should consider are type, shape, color, luster and of course size.
Cultured Pearls vs. Natural Pearls
Natural pearls very rare and hard to find in nature. Most pearls sold today are cultured. To create a cultured pearl, pieces of material varying in size are implanted into the oyster or mussel. These pieces of material aggravate the oyster or mussel and cause it to produce and coat the bead in many layers of natural minerals and proteins, referred to as nacre (pronounced Nay-Ker). It is the nacre that gives pearls their beautiful luster and color.
So for a pearl to be created naturally, this material must find its way into the animal by chance. This is why pearl farms have sprung up where the farmers place the material inside of the animal to cause it to produce a the nacre to coat the material eventually producing a pearl.
Cultured pearls and imitation pearls can be distinguished from natural pearls by X-ray examination. Cultured pearls are often 'pre-formed' as they tend to follow the shape of the implanted shell bead nucleus. Once the pre-formed beads are inserted into the oyster, it secretes a few layers of nacre around the outside surface of the implant before it is removed after six months or more.
When a cultured pearl is X-rayed, it reveals a different structure to that of a natural pearl. A cultured pearl shows a solid center with no concentric growth rings, whereas a natural pearl shows a series of concentric growth rings.
There are now many types of pearls to choose from. Some of them are: Aokya cultured saltwater pearls from the Akoya oyster. Freshwater pearls from mussels rather than saltwater oysters. South Sea and Tahitian.
Black pearls, frequently referred to as Black Tahitian Pearls, are highly valued because of their rarity; the culturing process for them dictates a smaller volume output and can never be mass produced. This is due to bad health and/or non-survival of the process, rejection of the nucleus and their sensitivity to changing climatic and ocean conditions. Before the days of cultured pearls, black pearls were rare and highly valued for the simple reason that white pearl oysters rarely produced naturally black pearls, and black pearl oysters rarely produced any natural pearls at all.
Since the development of pearl culture technology, the black pearl oyster found in Tahiti and many other Pacific Island areas has been extensively used for producing cultured pearls. The rarity of the black cultured pearl is now a "comparative" issue. The black cultured pearl is rare when compared to Chinese freshwater cultured pearls, and Japanese and Chinese akoya cultured pearls, and is more valuable than these pearls. However, it is more abundant than the South Sea pearl, which is more valuable than the black cultured pearl. This is simply because the black pearl oyster Pinctada margaritifera is far more abundant than the elusive, rare, and larger south sea pearl oyster Pinctada maxima, which cannot be found in lagoons, but which must be dived for in a rare number of deep ocean habitats or grown in hatcheries.
Black cultured pearls from the black pearl oyster – Pinctada margaritifera – are not South Sea pearls, although they are often mistakenly described as black South Sea pearls. In the absence of an official definition for the pearl from the black oyster, these pearls are usually referred to as "black Tahitian pearls".
The correct definition of a South Sea pearl is a pearl produced by the Pinctada maxima pearl oyster. South Sea pearls are the color of their host Pinctada maxima oyster – and can be white, silver, pink, gold, cream, and any combination of these basic colors, including overtones of the various colors of the rainbow displayed in the pearl nacre of the oyster shell itself.
Shapes that are not spherical or even symmetrical are considered lower quality. Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls found in jewelry have a tendency to be the roundest, while Freshwater pearls can be oval or slightly off-round.
Traditionally, the most desired pearl shape has been round. But nowadays, you can have pearls in as great a variety of shapes as you can colors.
Chinese farmers usually get two production cycles out of their pearl-growing mussels. During the first cycle, lasting about two years, the focus is on round pearls. If harvested pearls are put back in the water for another two year cycle, empty pearl sacks start generating second-growth free-form pearls of their own accord. Called "petal pearls" because of their flower petal shapes these pearls have found popularity with consumers looking for more individualistic pearls. So have black and white spontaneous-growth saltwater equivalents called "keshi" from Tahiti, Indonesia and Australia.
All in all, the emergence of China as the world's leading pearl producer (95%+) has brought unprecedented pearl diversity. Indeed, it is safe to say that the pearl as a gem species has been reinvented.
A pearl's color is also called the body color. The most prominent pearl colors are white, cream, yellow, pink, silver, or black. A pearl can also have a hint of secondary color, or overtone, which is seen when light reflects off the pearl surface. For example, a pearl strand may appear white, but when examined more closely, a pink overtone may become apparent.
While white, and more recently black, saltwater pearls are by far the most popular, other color tints can be found on pearls from the oceans. Pink, blue, champagne, green, black and even purple saltwater pearls can be encountered, but to collect enough pearls to form a complete string of the same size and same shade can take years.