Pearls have been all the rage, fashion-wise, for a few years and 2017 is no exception. Pop stars, Hollywood’s leading lights and royalty have all been seen sporting pearls at every kind of major event, proving that they are enjoying red hot fashion status right now.
Like people, each pearl is unique and individual and it is worth noting that they are the only ‘gem’ grown by, and inside, a living creature. Throughout history, pearls have been associated with wealth, power, religion and influence but because they are now ‘farmed’, meaning we don’t have to rely on the acquisition of very expensive natural, saltwater pearls, they are within everyone’s budget. Modern techniques mean they come in a whole range of sizes, colours, shapes and lustres so there is a pearl to suit everyone.
There have been decades when pearls were associated with Grandma and the ‘twinset and pearls’ image meant young people spurned them. Now almost every jewellery box contains pearls earrings, studs, ring, pendant or choker in styles ranging from young and funky to the more traditional three-strand necklace. They might be the more usual white or black pearls or something far more adventurous and even outrageous like bright pink, olive green, dark blue or bronze.
Do we really know anything about pearls though? How they are formed, where they come from, what differentiates the expensive ones from the more modestly priced?
Well, The British Pearl Association thinks we should know the difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls, what we mean by ‘cultured’ and what affects the value of a pearl.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty, literally, because that is what you need to begin the production of a single pearl. A foreign body, grit or whatever, gets into the shell of an oyster or mollusc and is so irritating that the creature protects itself by covering the intruder with layer after layer of nacre. This is how a natural pearl is formed, a very rare and expensive commodity nowadays, but it is exactly the same principle with a cultured pearl. The only difference is that the irritant, in the form of a small bead, is introduced by man.
There are four main types of cultured pearl:
1. Freshwater cultured pearls. These are the most common type and come in a wide range of shapes and hues ranging from pastel pink and peacock to lime green. A freshwater shell, mainly farmed commercially in China and Japan, can produce dozens of pearls.
2. Akoya pearls are a saltwater variety. It was Kokichi Mikimoto, in Japan, who first developed the modern technique of inserting a nucleus, or bead, into the mollusc’s mantle tissue to prompt the formation of a pearl. He embarked on pearl cultivation using the akoya oyster, the smallest pearl producing oyster in the world. Akoya pearls are renowned for having a brilliant lustre and are available in sizes from 3-10mm.
3. Tahitian pearls are grown in the black lipped mollusc but only those farmed in French Polynesia are entitled to call themselves Tahitian. They run the gamut of dark colours from green to grey and have beautiful peacock overtones. Shapes include round, teardrop and semi-round to baroque and the size averages between 8-13mm.
4. South Sea pearls are the rarest and largest and can take up to four years to grow. The size ranges from 8-20mm, the average being around 12mm, and they can carry a hefty price tag not only because of the size but also their superior lustre and the colours which range from ice white and sparkling silver to a deep gold.
Diamonds are graded according to clarity, cut and carat weight and there are also specific qualities to look for in a pearl. The greater the lustre the more valuable a pearl is, the finest ones being highly reflective. Shape is critical in valuable pearls - the more round, the better. In the world of pearls, size is important! The more millimetres the better! Pearls without blemishes are more sought after and with the exception of rare, natural pearls, colour does not usually affect value.
So now you might want to head for your jewellery box and have another look at the pearls you have stashed away there and appreciate all the effort that little mollusc put in to creating them for you. While you are there you might take the trouble to wipe them gently with a damp cloth. It is wise to do this regularly since they don’t like soap, perfume, hairspray or any kind of detergent. To avoid scratching them they should be kept away from other jewellery and laid out flat in a soft bag.