“The pearl is the queen of gems and the gem of queens.”
The pearl, June’s birthstone, is among the world’s most desirable gemstones. From the Roman Empire to Renaissance Europe, from imperial China to the ancient Americas, and to the present day, pearls have been treasured and pursued, purchased, traded, and stolen. To this day we consider pearls with fascination because they are the only gem fashioned by a living creature. Produced by mollusks––mussels and oysters––they are complete as found and require no further shaping or faceting to bring out their radiance and luster.
Among the early theories of pearl formation, the Romans believed that pearls were the frozen tears of oysters. Near Eastern cultures held that pearls were solidified rain or dew drops captured by mollusks. These theories were perpetuated into the 1500s. For example, Christopher Columbus observed off the coast of present-day Venezuela, “close to the sea there were countless oysters adhering to the branches of the trees which dip into the sea, with their mouths open to receive the dew which falls from the leaves, until the drop falls out of which pearls will be formed.”
Of course, modern science now understands that pearl formation is just an extension of shell formation in which the shell-forming tissue of the mollusk coats a foreign object that cannot be expelled. That coating is called nacre. Nacre is composed of aragonite (calcium carbonate) crystals. Over time, the oyster produces layers of nacre around the intrusion, each layer arranged beside the other concentrically. The crystal layers are held together by protein layers called conchiolin. How these layers are arranged produces in each pearl a unique optical effect. This optical effect and nacre thickness and compactness are important factors in evaluating a pearl.
In the formation of a natural pearl, that intrusion is natural. When a bead or tissue is intentionally implanted in a mollusk, the resulting formation is a cultured pearl. Both are real pearls, and both are considered gems. Except for some specialty pearls and pearls from pre-20th century estate or antique jewelry, almost all real pearls on the market today are cultured pearls.
Although we associate modern pearls with Japan and the South Seas, until the early twentieth century the international pearl trade was dominated by pearl yields from the Indian Ocean’s Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar, dating back for more than 40 centuries. Think Cleopatra’s pearls, Julius Caesar’s laws about the wearing of pearls, Marco Polo’s tales of the pearl divers.
The dominance of the Indian Ocean pearl trade was broken in about 1500 when the Spanish began importing vast quantities of pearls, by the bushel, to Europe from pearl beds in the Caribbean and Panama. What did Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella ask of Columbus? Not gold, but pearls. If you examine the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and other European nobles created at this time, their apparel is literally dripping with pearls, all from the seabeds of the New World. These New World beds were depleted by the mid-1600s, and Indian Ocean pearls reclaimed supremacy.
More recently, cultured pearl production, developed in Japan in the late 1800s, dealt an irreversible blow to Indian Ocean production.
Today, cultured pearls are sourced from a variety of areas––from Japan and China to the South Seas. Freshwater cultured pearls—those cultivated in freshwater ponds, lakes, and rivers—are grown in triangle shell mussels (Hyriopsis cumingii). China is the largest producer of these pearls.
Saltwater cultured pearls are produced by marine oysters. The most important of these are the Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls. Akoya cultured pearls are the perfectly round pearls, which are available not only in classic white, but also in silvery-blue and golden hues. They are harvested from Akoya oysters (Pinctada fucata martensii) off the coast of Japan.
Known for their compelling natural dark color, Tahitian cultured pearls are grown in black-lipped oysters (Pinctada margaritifera) around the islands of French Polynesia. Tahitian pearls range in color from metallic to gray to near black, often with iridescent overtones.
The rarest and most expensive of the cultured pearls is the South Sea pearl, grown primarily in the salt waters around Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Colors range from white and cream to silver gray and golden yellow. Two types of oysters produce these extremely lustrous pearls. Gold-lipped Pinctada maxima oysters, which are capable of growing large, lustrous, golden pearls—are farmed in the Philippines. Silver-lipped Pinctada maxima oysters produce the white to silver hues and are farmed mainly along the northern coast of Australia. Cultured South Sea pearls have the thickest nacre layers of all saltwater cultured pearl types.
Intrigued by pearls? llyn strong offers highest quality cultured freshwater and saltwater Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls that are all naturally colored, not dyed. Make an appointment or visit the store, where llyn and her staff can help you identify the factors that define a high-quality pearl gem: color, skin purity, luster and orient (reflected light and inner glow), and size and shape. Then you’ll be ready to select single pearls for rings and earrings or a strand to add a classic, timeless look to your jewelry wardrobe.