All Pearls are Not Created Equal
Pearls can be a bit confusing. There are freshwater pearls, saltwater pearls, cultured pearls, manmade pearls, fake pearls, etc. Pearls come in varied shapes, sizes, colors and prices. There’s much to consider when purchasing these beauties. For example, do you want a strand of pearls that will become a family heirloom to be passed from one generation to the next? Are you simply looking for pearls that will complement the gemstones you are using in a jewelry design? Will the pearls you buy be sewn onto a wedding veil or used in ornamentation for a bag or garment you are making? What size hole do you need in the pearls you are buying? Are you stringing them on wire or running a thread through them? Knowing how you want to use your pearls will guide you toward the appropriate kind. Let’s see if we can sift through just a small portion of the vast information about pearls.
Pearls can be natural or cultured. Those natural beauties develop when an irritant enters an oyster and cannot be expelled. The uncomfortable oyster secretes nacre until the irritant is completely covered with layer upon layers. This is what we call a pearl and I guess we can say that this thing of beauty, prized by humans, started as an oyster’s problem. This type pearl is quite rare and thus highly valued.
A pearl is designated as “cultured” when it comes from an oyster that was harvested alive, implanted with an irritant and then returned to the sea to develop the pearl. (Boy, I just thought cultured pearls were those that went to the opera!) We could say that cultured pearls are farmed pearls which seems to me to be a clearer designation of what they are. There are a several videos describing this process that you might find interesting.
Cultured pearls can be either saltwater or freshwater. These account for approximately 99% of the world’s pearls. Mussels are mainly used to grow freshwater pearls. The research does not provide a clear indication of whether mussels and oysters are both used in freshwater farming. The technique used in freshwater may result in the production of twenty or more pearls per mollusk. The bulk of these freshwater cultured pearls are grown in China. Further information about the grafting and production of these pearls in provided at
Saltwater cultured pearls come from oysters that are farmed in saltwater. (I think we could have figured that one out!) Since only one pearl is grown in each oyster, these are more expensive than the freshwater variety. It’s also interesting to note that the saltwater cultured pearl industry is careful to keep any inferior pearls off the market. This means there are fewer pearls that are a high quality and, correspondingly, they cost more.
The pearls may grow inside a mussel or oyster for as little as 18 months or as much as 5 or so years. It makes perfect sense that the longer growth period results in a larger pearl. We can certainly imagine how this affects the price. If you have any thoughts of creating your own little pearl farm to supply your jewelry habit, you might want to reconsider.
There are, of course, fake pearls. Some of these are quite beautiful and could be made of glass, among other materials. Swarovski does quite a fine job of creating a pearlized effect on crystal. If you would like to be able to tell whether the pearls you own or are purchasing are real or fake, interesting information is provided at the following site: http://www.wikihow.com/Tell-if-a-Pearl-Is-Real
You may have heard that you can run a pearl across your teeth to determine its authenticity. A fake pearl is supposed to feel smooth while an authentic pearl is a bit gritty. (I’m not sure that I want to be running a strand of pearls across my teeth at a bead show. I also don’t much want to be doing this on a previously “mouthed” strand!) We can, however, check for flaws and realize that the fake pearl will be without flaws while some exist on the real ones. Also, real pearls will feel heavier that the lightweight fake variety. You may also wish to examine the size of the hole on the pearl. Real pearls, as opposed to fake, tend to have a smaller hole to preserve as much of the pearl as possible. Alas, the only definite way to determine authenticity is with an X-ray machine. My advice is to go with a bead vendor you trust and to inquire about how they know the pearls are authentic. You can find this information reiterated in a video titled How to Tell Real Pearls from Fake Pearls http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0KVU7couCk&NR=1&feature=fvwp but beware you must watch a commercial before the information appears.
Speaking in terms of value, there are several factors to consider. The first consideration, of course, is whether the pearls are natural or cultured. If you are selecting cultured pearls, you may want to think about luster, color, shape, surface and size. In judging the luster of pearls look at how they reflect light. Are the pearls brilliant and shiny or do they appear chalky? Luster has to do with the quality of the nacre and this is impacted by the health and type of mollusk producing the specimen as well as the length of time allowed for development and other factors such as pollution. Color is not necessarily a determinant of value in pearls but is more a question of personal taste. Among many different colors, you may find light colored pearls such as white, ecru and pink or darker colors such as peacock green and shades of grey.
Pearls come in a variety of shapes and sizes and that may be one of the determining factors when you purchase a strand. Do you want rounds, ovals, spheres, baroque, rice shaped or something else? Maybe you would prefer stick, coin, oval, button or potato pearls. I did not have an immediate picture of a baroque pearl, but learned that these are irregularly shaped and usually have an uneven surface. The perfectly round pearl is considered by many to be the most valuable; yet, the other shapes are quite interesting in designs.
A pearl is higher in value if it has fewer surface blemishes. However, that perfect pearl is likely to be fake. You may find that flaws can lower the price of a pearl strand while having little effect on its beauty.
Size can be a big determinant in the price of pearls. The size of a pearl is determined by its diameter. They range in size from extremely small 3 mm to much larger, perhaps 18 mm. A single mm can make a 100 or 200 percent difference in price. (I think I’m beginning to like those little ones more and more!)
There are numerous online suggestions regarding the selection of pearls. Two are listed below.
There is much more information about pearls, but I hope you find this treatise pithy and useful. The bottom line seems to be purchase the best pearls you like for the price you can afford. That’s about all we can do.
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