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Pearls - Organic gemstones


When you come to think of it, there is nothing as amazing as having a nondescript unknown grain of sand turning out to be one of the most beautiful gems in the world. In order to appreciate the true beauty of a pearl and how precious it can be, then you need to learn and understand about the development of this amazing gem.

A pearl can be classified as one of the few organic gems, amongst them are other well-known ones such as Jet, Amber and Coral. A pearl is a unique gem in that it is not composed of minerals like others, but it grows inside a mollusk. Mollusca are the shell animals which have two shells which open through a hinge joint; these include mussel, oysters and clams.

When a grain of sand, or other foreign matter enters a mollusk, it starts irritating the insides of the organism, and in order to guard against such irritation, it secretes a silky, mucous substance which is known as Nacre, to cover the foreign object. Now this process of secreting the Nacre over the foreign substance continues over time, and after three to five years since the substance entered the shell, when the mollusk is opened, it unveils a wonderful, beautiful and glorious pearl.

Cultured vs. natural pearls

Whenever you see a pearl you may think that it is one that was formed inside a mollusk in the sea, and it was brought up by daring divers who comb the bottom of the sea in search of such treasures, but you may never think about the cost of incurring these natural pearls on the sea ecosystem. It has been shown that it is destructive to look for pearls at the bottom of the sea, especially for the coral and sea life that lives in tis habitat. For this very reason, diving for pearls has been restricted or prohibited in many seas. Now, cultured pearls do not cause any harm to the sea, since they are grown in environmentally-friendly conditions. In fact, there are many pearl farms, where pearls are cultured under supervision, and therefore no harm is caused to the natural seas.

Today, many people, who love the protection of the environment, prefer that the pearls that they buy are those that have been cultured, so they know that their patronage does not include harming the natural habitat of these mollusks. It will be good to know that 99 percent of the pearls that are sold today, have been cultured on pearl farms.

The naturally grown pearls that are in existence today, can only be found in collections and in museums; when you are buying pearls, it is not really a matter of natural pearls vs. cultured ones, but a case of pearls vs. synthetic.

If you are buying pears and do not know how to tell the difference between a genuine one and one that is not, you simply rub the pearls gently across your teeth. The genuine pearls will have a grainy texture, instead of a smooth one. When the texture feels too smooth, then it is not a genuine one, but if it is rough, then the pearl is genuine. The reason for this is the fact that most synthetic producers of pearl are as yet to know how to create the natural grainy texture of Nacre.

The qualities of pearl gemstone

The terms used to describe pearls are also the ones that determine their value; the terms are Orient, Flawless and Round. It seem a bit too obvious to describe a pearl as being round, given that this is the natural form that they take, but it is an important characterization. Most people think that all pearls are naturally round, and that they are faceted so that they are empirically formed in this shape, but that is not always the case. In fact, the shape of the pearl will depend entries on the work that is done by the mollusk.

The making of a pearl necklace or bracelet is not an easy job; no two pearls are ever the same, and the jeweler will have spent several hours selecting the right kind of pearls to make the item.

Ideally, pearls of the highest quality do not have any bumps flaws or marks, and this is an indication that they were made of high quality Nacre, which results in an even and spotlessly clean surface. The orient pearl has a soft iridescence, which is brought about by the refraction of light rays off the silky layers if the Nacre. The word orient is used to describe the luster, also known as the pearlescence of a pearl. This characteristic, or the orient of a pearl, is the final consideration when it is being valued.

Understanding the importance of culturing pearls

As mentioned earlier, pearls are organic gems which are formed when a foreign object enters into the shells of a mollusk, and in this case it is the Oyster; the oyster secretes Nacre, which covers the foreign object and forms a pearl over several years. In ancient times, pearls were considered to be very valuable, and in some case, they were treasured more than real estate; for only a single pearl to be found, thousands of oysters had to be pried open and this is why they were very rare and precious. Considering how many oysters had to be harvested, man soon saw the destructive nature of getting natural pearls, and therefore, he had to find a way that the pearls would not be created by chance, but by design. Man found that by placing a bead inside the shells of a peal, they could get pearls, which were not made by the chance happening of a single grain of sand entering the shells, but by the certainty that the beads would soon have a covering of Nacre, and hence a pearl will be found within the shells. Therefore, one has to understand that culturing pearls helped save millions of oysters from being harvested for nothing, since the possibility of a grain of sand getting embedded in an oyster, in its natural habitat is very slim.

Japan is the highest producer of cultured pearls. In the South Pacific, the waters are warmer and therefore the oysters grow larger, having enough room to make larger pearls. The South Sea Cultured Pearls and the Tahitian Black Cultured Pearls are formed in this way. China is the largest producer of Freshwater pearls, and these are not grown in oysters, which thrive in salt water but in Mussels.

One of the many myths of pearls gemstones

It is said that pearls are one of the most ancient and precious gems ever to be discovered by man; it is said that they were used in trade over 5,000 years ago. Legends and myths about pearls have been around for as long as the pearl has; it is commonly said that a pearl always brings tears. It was said that in ancient times, people thought that pearls were the tears of angels or of the moon. However, despite this saying, many ancient cultures believed that a pearl actually brought a smile and not tears.

Greeks have perennially though very highly of the pearl, and they said that it brought about beauty and therefore was a good gem for love and marriage. They said that a pearl would bring about happiness in any marriage, and that it stopped a bride from crying during the wedding; therefore the Greeks made it a tradition to give the bride a pearl on her wedding day.

Another ancient civilization the Romans, regarded the pearl as a sign of social standing and wealth; they said that having pearls would increase the life of the individual, and that he or she would always have great health. Whenever knights went out on crusades, they would wear pearls as talismans, in the belief that they would protect them from any harm by the enemy. In some countries, during the Renaissance, pearls were very highly regarded, and in some countries, only noble people would wear them, a rule that was enforced in the law.

Pearls can last a lifetime id they are properly looked after, and it is best that they are worn as often as possible. The natural oils of the body help pearls to maintain their orient and not fade away. You should never expose pearls to household cleaning chemicals and also perfume, hair-spray and make-up. Pearls, as well as Moonstones and Alexandrite, are birthstones of the month of June.

Color and history of the pearl gem

Not too long ago, there were only two colors that dominated the pearl world, and these were the black and white pearls although the white pearls made up the biggest portion by far. The only thing that one had to consider when selecting pearls was the size, shape, and quality characters such as the complexion and luster of the gem. It was very rare that color entered the discussion, since there was nothing to talk about; similar to diamonds pearls just came in a single color, and that was white. The white nature of a pearl is not always pure, and there are some variations from one pearl to the next. There are pearls that have a neutral white color, and there are those that had a hint of yellow, champagne, silver or yellow. The pearls were normally white in color, unless a dye was added to turn the color to black or some other innovative shade.

The reason why pearls were normally white is not a mystery at all. The main source of pearls has been Japan, for several years; just before World War I. Kokichi Mikomoto found a way in which pearls could be cultured. He perfected the technique of taking the Pinctada Fucata Martensi, otherwise known as the Saltwater Oyster, and introduced a foreign substance in the shell, and then put it back in the water. After a few years, a pearl had formed around the foreign object, and pearl farming was born. The pearls that came from Japan were also known as the Akoya pearls, and have been exported to America for more than 50 years.

Today, you can get new colors and varieties of peals from your jewelers. The Akoya pearl, which was mainly pore white in color, has now been joined by gray and black pearls cultured in Tahiti, Purple and Orange pearls grown in China, and Cream and Golden Pearls from Indonesia. Today you can find pearls that have different hues as well as origins, and these are used to make a wide array of jewelry; necklaces, rings, pendants, earrings, brooches and pins, just to name a few. There has never been such an abundance in choices for pearls. You can now get pearls which will fit any budget, need and taste.

Mikimoto´s pearl cultivation method

Throughout human history, the pearl was admired and worshipped in equal measure. The Persian, said that they were the tears of the gods. In Islam, the belief is that the pearl was the first creation that God made. It comes as no surprise that throughout history, man has always looked for ways in which to culture pearls, and make mollusks to produce them on demand, instead of waiting for that one rare chance of nature that brought about the growing of a pearl inside the mollusk. In China, small Buddha figurines, which looked like tiny medallions would be placed inside oysters so that they could be covered in Nacre, which is also called Mother of Pearl; these would then be worn as amulets.

Despite this age-old search for a way in which to grow pearls, it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that one person was successfully able to grow full pearls. Before 1910, the first commercially grown pearls were half or dome-shaped, and these were grown inside the shells of the oysters. The man who was able to successfully cultivate pearls was known as Mikimoto, as mentioned earlier, and these were an astonishment to the pearl world; the best of them could hardly be distinguished from those which were grown by oysters in their natural habitat.

Mikimoto was able to grow pearls using a method that had three distinct processes:

  1. He would surgically implant a spherical bead into the shell of the oyster, and they would serve as the foreign body, or nuclei, around which the Nacre would be added; this ensured that the pearls had a perfectly round shape.
  2. The nucleated oysters would be carefully nurtured for the next four years or so.
  3. The pearls would then be harvested, and they would have great color and shape.
This method was known to produce what the world came to know as domesticated pearls. At the time, nobody knew that he had come across a method that would be adopted by the world, in order to save the natural habitat of oysters, as well as increase the chances of getting a pearl inside the shell, unlike the old ways, where harvesters would search thousands of oysters before coming up with a single pearl; a process that destroyed the coral and affected the sea life that depended on it.

As these man-involved pearls went on the market, early in 1920, buyers and experts were shocked to the resemblance between them and their naturally-formed counterparts; this made the prices of pearls to take a nosedive and it was only with the intervention of gemologists that the prices stabilized again. Gemologists had to come up with a way in which people could tell the man-assisted pearls from the natural ones. They used X-rays, which could tell the texture of the natural Nacre, from those which had a bead in their center; this tended to stabilize the market, as the panic that was initially felt, slowly died down.

It was only in 1924, when the term "cultured" was coined by dealers in an effort to differentiate Mikimoto´s pearls from the natural ones. Despite all this, later on in the century, the fate of natural pearls was doomed. Firstly, it was very difficult to get natural pearls. Secondly, environmentalists said that the way the natural pearls were harvested was harmful to the ecosystem. Within 30 years the pearls that were mainly sold in the world were those that came from pearl farms. Every year, there are only a handful of pearls that are harvested from the sea, and the distinction between the two types is of no consequence. Domesticated, or farm-raised pearls are the only ones that you are bound to find, when you walk into a jewelry store.

A kaleidoscope of color

The world soon forget about the wide and subtle variety of colors that were produced naturally, after the cultured or domesticated pearls took hold on the market; freshwater and salt water mollusks were able to bring forth pearls that had several shades of color, as mentioned earlier.

However, it was only a small matter of time before pearl farmers from other regions of the world started to grow pearls using locally available mollusks, knowing fully well, that different breeds of oysters would produce different pearl colors. In 1920, Masayo Fujita, who was sponsored by the Mitsubishi Company, started a farm in Indonesia known as Buton. On the farm, they used the giant oyster breed known as Pinctada Maxima, which would produce elephantine pearls that had diameters of between 8 and 10 mm; this was over 3 times the size of the pearls that used to come from Mikimoto´s pearl farms in Japan.

Some of these pearls had a golden color that was as astounding as the size was. Within the same period, another farm called the South Seas Farm, stared experimenting with the Pinctada Margaritifera breed which produced the magnificent Black Pearls. In the Middle of the same year, Pearl growers from Japan started experimenting with lake mussels and came up with pastel-pink and purple pearls.

However, ever since this time, there was very limited experimentation when it came to the growing of pearls which had different colors, apart from white. The South Seas and Freshwater cultured pearls would remain a curiosity to the pearls market until well after World War II. It was not until the last half of the 1990s that farms started experimenting on ways in which they could get more colors than those that had been existing for decades.

There was a trend that stared in the 1950, slowly gaining popularity, in which saltwater pearls from Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and Tahiti, and also Freshwater pearls from China and Japan, planted seeds that gave rise to a renaissance of pearls of various colors; these changed the definition of the cultured pearl to include both the colorless and the colored pearls.

To elaborate more, South Seas farms, would use the yellow-lipped oysters, which brought forth fantastic golden pearl, which would range from a reddish-orange color, which made them seem fiery, to the yellow that is found in bullion gold bars. China, using lake mussels, was able to come up with pearls that had an orange similar to that of apricots, and also plum-colored purple pearls. In Tahiti, black-lipped oysters were used to produce oysters that had a wide variety of colors, ranging from the popular eggplant purple, cobalt blue, bronze brown and peacock green.

This availability of pearls in various color has allowed jewelers to come up with very interesting designs of jewelry. You can find a fine necklace or bracelet which has a string of pearls with different colors. In the fashion world, using several colors of pearl is the hottest trend today.

Types of pearls

Vietnamese Akoya · These are Akoya pearls that are similar to those grown in Japan, apart from one simple fact. These pearls are small in size, with some having a diameter of only 2 mm. This has helped to address the shortage of small pearls, which the Japanese farms are as yet to address. Although Chinese Akoya and Vietnamese Akoya pearls are sold through Japan, they are noted as being of Vietnamese origin, unlike the Chinese ones, which are labeled as "Made in Japan".

Chocolate Pearls · These are very rare pearls that are produced by a process of bleaching. One would hardly think that such a wonderful rich color would be the result of trying to remove the white color from the pearl. This is a process that was developed by Ballerina Pearls, based in New York, and no other designer or producer has been able to duplicate the process. There has been a lot of publicity surrounding these pearls and even if they are still so rare.

Freshwater Keshi · This is a Chinese freshwater pearl, which has become almost impossible to find. Anyone who knows much about pearls will know that this is a pink-colored pearl, which is also called the Petal Pearl, or Second Growth Pearl. They used to be, and still are, the hottest sensations when it comes to pearls, but their production is much lower than the demand. For many people, this is a pearl variety that was first seen, and for many, last seen, at the American Trade shows of 2003 and 2004. Many importers said that the pearls were quickly gobbled up by buyers, and many wish they had bought more stocks.

Multicolor Pearl Strands · These are strands of pearls that have a number of different colors. They have been the fashion trend for quite a while now, even though many established pearl dealers say that this trend will soon end. These are Tahitian pearls which have been specially treated so they come up with a variety of colors. You can get sky-blue, bronze-red, and dawn-pink pearls, just to name but a few. These are divided into two categories. The first is that which has different colors in soft hues, which are nearly unnoticeable, while the other is that which has pearls which have a sharp difference in the colors.

Keshi Pearl · These are also called Chance Pearls. There are certain mollusks, especially mussels, which can live long enough to grow up to three generations of pearls. However, these chance pearls grow without the mollusks being nucleated with any material again. The pinctada margaritifera oyster and the hyriopsis schlegeli fresh water mussel, can spontaneously grow another pearl even when they are not nucleated with beads or mantle material. These pearls tend to be small in comparison, but they are very popular in the Arab countries; here they fetch thousands of dollars whereas they do not do well in other markets.

Mabe Pearl · These are large pearls that do not cost as much, mainly because of the negative attention that they draw. These are made from a Nacre nucleus, which is placed inside the mollusk and then new Nacre is added on top. It is possible to grind off this nucleus, and then fill it up, so that it seems like the pearl is completely made of nacre alone. Most dealers say that this is an almost counterfeit method of production and do not sell them. However for people who do not have a lot of money to buy pearls, these would be the best option since they are cheap.

Chinese Freshwater Pearls · These are pearls that are taking over the market from the Japanese pearls. Mass production can prove to be detrimental to pearl growing. As Carl Marx said, Quantity destroys Quality. The Japanese pearls have fallen in terms of quality, with some of them showing signs of peeling within a short period, and this has eroded confidence in them, The Chinese Freshwater Pearls have filled this void, and are hugely produced with tonnages of upwards of 25 tons per year.

Tahitian Keshi Pearl · The word Keshi, literally means tiny; the term was used to describe pearls that were non-nucleated and were considered to be a fluke of nature. Today, the term is used to describe any pearl that grows inside a mollusk without nucleating, and the petal can be of any size. The Tahitian keshi is usually grown by smaller businesses, mainly small scale mom-and-pop operations which do not have the resources to grow pearls that are of a larger size.

Circle Pearls · These are pearls that come from Tahiti, China, Australia and Indonesia, which has a single or parallel groves running along the body of the pearl. Although many people think of this as an imperfection there are those who treasure them since they know that they are the genuine item, which was grown inside an oyster. Many growers say that if they knew what caused the grooves, they would correct it, but it seems that the grooves are appealing to come buyers.

Conch Pearl · These are pearls that grow inside mollusks that are known as Queen Conches. For many years, there was only one woman who dealt in these very-little known pearls, but when people found out where they are harvested from, there was a huge increase in the slaughtering of Queen Conches. This was so pronounced that several countries from the Yucatan, to Cuba and the Florida Keys, through the Caribbean to Barbados and all the way north to Bermuda put restrictions on how these mollusks are harvested, whether for their meat, or for the pearls.

Cortez Pearls · This is a black pearl that is linked with an area that was explored by a Spanish soldier of fortune, known as Herman Cortez, who sought out pearls just as he did gold and other minerals. The area is called the Gulf of California, but the locals believe that its proper name is the Sea of Cortez and hence the name.

Melo Pearl · These are pearls that have been well known in the Asia region, but not in the West, until recently, that are grown in snails. The group of snails is called volutes. The first pearl of this kind went for over $400,000 in an auction, and it was the only one at the time. These pearls have a very mellow yellow color, and that is why they were christened Melo Pearl; the Melo being the shortening for the name Mellow.

There are many other types of pearls, with most of them deriving their names from their origin, history, mythology, production methods, amongst many other factors. Some of the most notable include, Philippine Pearls, South Sea Cultured Pearl, Pistachio Pearl, South Sea Baroque Cultured Pearls, Tahitian Cultured Pearl, and Akoya Cultured Pearl.

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