All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography – Frederico Fellini
A traditional gift for brides, June birthdays, and the third and thirtieth wedding anniversary, Pearls were believed by the ancient Babylonians to have life-giving powers and the ability to restore youth. Even today, their allure is timeless.
Pearls are unique in the world of coloured gemstones as it is the only gemstone formed within a living creature. It is a treasured gift of the sea, revered for its colour, shape and luster.
Pearls are so cherished, that as the sources of natural pearls became exhausted, we have learned to cultivate them by implanting an irritant directly into an oyster. Today, cultured Pearls are grown and harvested in many parts of the world including the fresh waters of the Tennessee River. The majority of cultured Pearls come from Japan, China, and the South Pacific.
Cultured Pearls come in many different colours, from palest creme and white to rose, lilac, green, gold, gray, and the dramatic Tahitian black. Cultured Pearls come in many shapes and sizes, and can be acquired in both graduated and uniform strands.
Colour does not affect the quality of a pearl, but does affect the perceived beauty of the pearl according to the individual taste of the “eye of the beholder”. Some colours have become more popular than others in particular markets. For example, white pearls are the most popular in America, while silver are more sought after in Asia.
Most jewellery experts agree that a buyer’s colour choice should be primarily based on what will look good on the person who will wear the pearls. In generals, pink pearls look best on fairer skin tones, while yellow or golden pearls look best on darker skin tones.
Akoya Cultured Pearls are white lustrous pearls with usually cream or rose coloured overtones. These are the classic pearls most often used in pearl strands. Classic Japanese Akoya cultured pearls come in shades of white, with the most valuable shades being rose and white. The other shades are white-rose, silver-white rose, greenish-white rose, and greenish-white.
Freshwater Pearls come in various pastel shades of white, pink, peach, lavender, plum, purple, and tangerine.
South Sea Cultured Pearls come in shades of lustrous white, often with silver or rose overtones. They are larger in size than the Akoya pearl and are also used in the creation of fine pearl strands and ropes.
Tahitian Pearls most often come in shades of black and grey. While a Tahitian pearl has a black body colour, it will vary in its overtones, which most often will be green or pink. Tahitian cultured pearls differ from other pearls in one important respect. Yes, they are cultured, as opposed to natural, but their black colour is naturally produced by the oyster, which makes them “naturally black” cultured pearls.
When a mollusk senses an irritant within its body it secretes layers of semi-opaque calcium carbonate called nacre (NAY-ker) to coat the irritant. This substance builds up over time and becomes a pearl. The thicker the nacre, the more lustrous the pearl. Though there are exceptions to that rule, the amount of nacre determines the reflective quality of the pearl’s surface. Lustre is the most important factor determining the quality of a pearl. It is especially important that the surface be without blemish, because lustre is more often seen on a smooth surface without ridges that deflect light.
A low-lustre pearl is dim and monochromatic, but a higher grade of pearl with thicker nacre produces a resilient pearl with far few surface blemishes. This creates a sharp, high-contrast surface that is almost mirror-like in its reflective qualities.
“Very high”, “high”, “medium”, “low”, and “very low” are the five categories used in the industry to grade the lustre of any pearl.
The size of the oyster directly affects the size of the pearl it creates. Larger mollusks, for instance, create larger pearls. However, large cultured pearls require a larger nucleus to be implanted into the oyster, which increases the chance of the mollusk either rejecting the nucleus, or dying before a pearl has an opportunity to develop.
A large nucleus also affects the complexion of the pearl. It’s more likely that a larger, mature pearl will be formed with greater surface defects. Round pearls are measured according to their diameter, while baroque pearls are measured by their length and width. Size is determined by diameter and expressed in millimetres, since pearls are sold by the millimetre. Pearls, of course, come in a range of sizes, these being the average:
- Akoya: 6 to 8 millimetres in diameter, with 8 mm considered large.
- Freshwater: 5 to 6.5 millimetres, for the best quality.
- South Sea: 11 and 13 millimetres, large by any pearl standard.
- Tahitian: The match of the South Sea pearl, also between 11 and 12 millimetres.
Pearl strands are sorted by size, with a specific millimetre range:
- Petite: 6 millimetres and below.
- Classic: 6 to 7.5 millimetres.
- Most Popular: 7 to 7.5 millimetres.
- Outstanding: 8 millimetres.
A pearl’s size doesn’t necessarily indicate its quality, but it most certainly does affect its price. All things considered, the larger the pearl, the higher its value.