What Exactly are Pearls... and, Why are They so Special?

Published: 01st May 2009
Views: N/A

Pearls are one of nature's most wonderful gifts. They are formed by mollusks and, unlike other precious gems, come from nature perfect and without further need of shaping by man.

The color of the mollusk's shell determines the color of the pearls. Not all mollusks create beautiful pearls, but those that do can create the kind of spectacular gleaming gems that have captivated mankind for centuries.

Pearls have been so highly prized throughout history that their value once surpassed virtually all other gemstones. The sacred books of most of the world's religions compare heaven to pearls and have used pearls to describe the sublime happiness that comes with discovering God. Pearls have come to symbolize purity and innocence. Some people have even ascribed supernatural powers to pearls.

Pearls that occur naturally without human intervention or encouragement are rare. To find a single natural pearl, it might be necessary to open 10,000 oysters. An even then, only a small percentage of the natural pearls one might find would have the size, shape and quality to make them useful as jewelry. Today virtually all pearls sold commercially are cultured pearls.

Since pearls are formed by mollusks in response to small irritants that find their way inside the animal's shell, it was only a matter of time before humans discovered that they could introduce small irritants into the oyster or mussel to induce it to create a pearl. The cultured pearl was born and now nearly everyone has a chance to appreciate the beauty of pearls.

In the case of saltwater pearls that are formed by oysters, a tiny piece of tissue from another oyster is implanted into the host oyster along with a shell bead (generally round) created from the shell of a certain kind of freshwater mussel. Over time the host oyster will lay down layer upon layer of nacre coating the shell bead until a pearl is formed. Nacre is composed of a calcium carbonate material that is basically the same thing as the "Mother-of-Pearl" coating found inside the shells of the mollusks that make pearls.

Although pearls can be found in a variety of mollusks including; abalone, nautilus, conch, clams, cowries and others; only certain varieties of oysters and mussels are utilized for commercial pearl production. Differences in pearls derive from the different species of mollusks used to form the pearls (oysters or mussels) as well as different varieties within those species as well as the environmental conditions in which the mollusk lives including water temperature, surrounding minerals, etc. Most pearl producers understand how to manipulate these variables to achieve the most beautiful results possible.

To create a saltwater pearl, an oyster must be birthed, collected, nurtured until maturity, then carefully implanted with a small piece of mantle tissue and a shell nucleus which is surgically placed in the oyster's gonad. The oyster is then returned to the sea where, hopefully, the pearl begins forming. In some cases the oyster ejects the nucleus or otherwise fails to produce a pearl from the implant. In those cases where the implant is successful, the oyster may be left to coat the nucleus with nacre for up to two years. During this time the pearl farmer carefully maintains the health and safety of the pearls. Once harvested, in some cases the oyster may be able to support 2-3 successive implantations until it reaches the end of its life.

Of the pearls harvested, only a small percentage, are of exceptional quality. Pearl harvests follow a pretty typical "bell-shaped" distribution curve. The majority of pearls are of average quality (grade C) somewhat fewer are of B or D quality and only relative few are of truly exceptional A quality or better. The F's never see market.

So although the cultured pearl industry has put pearl ownership within the reach of many people, truly outstanding pearls of great beauty are still rare and require significant effort, risk and time by those who produce them. You can find a great selection of pearl jewelry offered at affordable prices at www.MermaidPearls.com .



Dave Battles is the founder and owner of www.MermaidPearls.com and is a graduate of the Gemological Institute of America's Pearl Certificate program.

Report this article Ask About This Article

More to Explore