The Iridescent Gem - compiled by Bead Merchants of AfricaPearls have been around for centuries, prized for their luster and rarity; they were worn by early British royalty and administered as remedies for illnesses such as insanity in the early Roman Empire.
Ancient Hindu and Indian texts refer to pearls, and pearls were so prized by the Ancient Romans, that a law was made prohibiting certain classes who were not ‘worthy’ of wearing pearls. Even Cleopatra, the famous Egyptian Queen, was said to adorn herself with pearls, and succeeded in consuming the most expensive meal ever by dissolving her pearl in a glass of vinegar and drinking it to win a wager with Marc Anthony.
Pearls are luminous and rare, their beauty has transcended the ages, and their demand has only increased as new and innovative methods for producing pearls come to the fore.
Like any good gem, pearls are judged by a strict criteria; luster, shape, colour, size and surface. The surface, or orient, is the most important quality to a pearl. It is this iridescence, caused by the refraction of light by the layers of the pearl, which has made the pearl so intriguing. In this months feature we bring you a comprehensive breakdown on the variety of pearls, from the most rare to the everyday imitation pearl.
Natural pearls, the most rare and expensive, originate from pearl mollusks, such as oysters, muscles, and clams. A meager grain of sand is all that is needed to start the development of a pearl. The sand is an irritant to the mollusk and the mollusk coats the sand grain in a coating called nacre which causes it to become less irritating. The grain of sand and the nacre coating ultimately produce a pearl. The components of the nacre are what give the pearl its luster. Natural pearls were at once stage commercially sourced by divers- but this was dangerous and has become rare. Natural pearls are still found in a variety of different types of mollusks, but their rarity means that they seldom get to see the commercial market.
The majority of pearls on the market today are cultured, which means that the pearl mollusks are bred by man in suitable conditions. A few years into their germination period, the mollusk’s shell is forced open and a small pearl seed is planted inside. The shape of the pearl seed ensures that the pearl will be spherical in shape- the most prized and commercially appealing. The cultured pearl is removed 2-3 years later. Cultured pearls can either be farmed in fresh water, commonly referred to as freshwater pearls, or in sea water, often referred to as Oriental pearls.
Oriental, or Saltwater Pearls, tend to have more luster than freshwater pearls, therefore increasing their value. They are traditionally farmed in Japan.
The most common saltwater pearls, are grown from an Akoya oyster, named after the Lake in Japan where they are grown. The average size is 7mm and they are left to grow for 10 to 18 months. Akoya pearls come in a variety of colours, such as white, silver, cream, rose, blue, grey and sometimes even in purple or brown. Mikimoto pearls are Akoya pearls - they were the first pearls farmed in Japan for the retail market and are still renowned as one of the best pearl producers worldwide.
South Sea pearls are a variety of Oriental pearls which are highly prized for their orient, size and luster. They are grown in the warmer waters of the South Pacific and take 2-3 years to germinate. This lengthy period ensures the pearl has a thicker nacre and is therefore more appealing.