Pearls are mysterious and misunderstood. Of all fine jewelry I’ve sold over the years, people knew less about pearls than any other type of gemstone. There are freshwater pearls, Akoya pearls, baroque pearls, Tahitian pearls, South Sea Pearls, pearls of wisdom and Pearl tampons….see how confusing it all is? So, as a result, this is a super long post, however, there's a lot to the basics if you're going to be an informed pearl shopper. If you don't have time, just buy Mikimoto. Otherwise...
When I started selling jewelry 20 years ago, I didn’t appreciate pearls. I thought they were for old ladies, a little too classic for me. However, the first time I gathered a 36” strand (opera length) of 9mm Mikimoto pearls in my hand I went blind for a minute, composed myself and became a convert. Cool, white and luxurious, I wrapped them around my neck twice and clasped them. Doubled like that, they looked substantial and contemporary – not like Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brother’s movies. Plus, the white of the pearls brightened my face better than any of the concealers in my makeup barrel.
For centuries, pearls were formed in nature when an irritant (a piece of sand or a bit of shell, for example) made its way inside the shell of a certain mollusk and, knowing the irritant is there (think: annoying spouse) the oyster starts to secrete (shrug really-like leave me alone already) thousands of layers of nacre covering the irritant, which ultimately forms the pearl. See if you can find the pearl in the image (this is the only type of raw oyster I would eat – one with a big honking pearl stuck in it instead of a snot ball). Before the beginning of the 20th century, the only means of obtaining pearls was by pearl diving or manually gathering very large numbers of pearl oysters (or pearl mussels) from the ocean floor (or lake, or river bottom), bringing them to the surface, opening them and harvesting the pearls (God, so much work). A ton of oysters might produce only 3 or 4 quality pearls.
1893, Koikichi Mikimoto, started farming pearls and produced the world's first cultured pearls. This brought the dangerous business of pearl diving just about to an end. His process of culturing pearls in oyster beds by manually implanting the irritant rather than allowing nature to take its course produces some of the most valuable pearls in the world.
How to Buy Pearls – Important Things to Look For
Luster: this is the sheen on the pearl caused by the layers of nacre. Usually the more nacre the more luster, the more beautiful the pearl. In my opinion, this is the first thing you look for and the most important factor when shopping for pearls.
Perfection: the second most important element when evaluating pearls. Blemishes or blebs are naturally found on pearls and are caused by the conditions present when they are forming. They can be proof a pearl is real but the fewer blemishes the more valuable the pearl. No one wants to wear pearls with goobers on them.
Shape: perfectly round pearls are rare and expensive; however, South Sea pearls can produce unusual shapes and are coveted as well.
Color: pearls are available in many colors based on the type of oyster that forms it. The most popular Akoya (saltwater pearls) colors are white, cream and rose´, while gold and peacock green are popular South Sea colors. Color may not be indicative of value but even and intense distribution of color is. Choose the color that best compliments your complexion, not your industrial strength makeup.
Size: Pearls are measured by millimeters in size starting with 3mm to 10mm for Akoya’s and 8mm to 20mm for South Sea’s. Naturally, larger pearls are more expensive than smaller ones and as with all things...the bigger the better.
Types of Pearls – The Technical Stuff But Important to Know the Difference
Akoya ~ produced in Japan’s Akoya oysters, they are the most popular saltwater pearls. They grow from 3mm-10mm and come in white, cream, pink, light green, blue and silver.
Freshwater ~ produced mostly in the lakes and rivers of China, freshwater pearls are cultured in a mussel rather than an oyster and are often less expensive than Akoya’s or South Seas. Small in size, as many as ten to fourteen freshwater pearls can be cultured in one mussel. Perfectly round freshwater pearls are extremely rare and they are most often found in unusual shapes.
South Sea White ~ produced by the silver-lipped South Sea oyster. They have a slight opalescent appearance which subtly changes in different light making them incredibly beautiful. Usually available in sizes starting at 9mm, their shapes range from round, oval or teardrop to free-form baroque.
South Sea Golden ~ produced by the golden-lipped South Sea oyster. Their natural golden color is an unusual find and extremely rare. Colors range from light champagne to a very rare, deep gold. This oyster can also produce richly luminescent white pearls, but the deeper golden colors are the most coveted of all pearls. Golden South Sea’s usually start at 9mm in size and go up, with beautiful large round, oval, teardrop or baroque shapes.
Tahitian or Black South Sea ~ produced in black lipped oysters off the waters of Tahiti and Okanawa with sizes that range from 8mm-20mm. Although not actually black, colors range from slate grey, silver and pistachio to peacock green and midnight black with overtones of green, rosé or blue.
Conch Pearls ~ these natural pearls are among the rarest pearls in the world and are harvested from the Queen conch, a large sea snail with a heavy, lustrous shell that lives in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The highest-quality Conch pearls are characterized by a unique design that gives the appearance of a fire burning on the surface.
Caring for Pearls
Remember your pearls are organic little seeds of nature. They don’t like acid, alkaline or extreme temperatures. Be sure to keep them away from perfume, hairspray or makeup. I always tell customers when wearing pearls, they should be the last thing you put on and the first thing you take off. Do not put them on then decide to douse yourself in a tornado of Jo Malone. Wipe them with a dry cotton cloth after wear (do not be tempted to use your husband’s tighty-whities - you can spring for a nice cloth) and store them separately in their own box. But please, please wear your pearls. If they are stored for long periods of time without wear they will dry out. Even though they don’t particularly like lying against your skin, they hate being ignored even more. When you notice a little bit of the silk string in between your pearls - it’s time for restringing - usually every year or so if you wear them all the time, or every two to three years with occasional wear. Bring them to your trusted jeweler for this job. Be sure you both agree on the number of pearls on your strand (count them and document it) and agree on knotting in between the pearls before they are sent to the stringer. Knotting is very important. They are not pop beads from the toy store. If your necklace breaks maybe you’ll only lose one pearl rather than have all of them fly onto the floor. Knotting ensures your pearls are protected.
Remember the pearls you see in a costume or fashion jewelry department are usually not real pearls (however, could be freshwater) but are made from plastic or some type of resin. They are usually very well priced, mostly under $100. Fashion pearl vendor, Carolee, is a good source of fashion pearl jewelry, especially wedding pearls. They have a great selection worth looking at.
TAGS: pearls, Mikimoto, Carolee, freshwater pearl, Akoya