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Learn About Pearls

Treasured by ancient civilizations in the East and West for their beauty, pearls have taken on a variety of meanings over the centuries.  In the Orient, pearls were believed to represent wisdom.  In Rome, they were considered the highest symbol of wealth and status. In the Middle Ages, knights wore them for protection against injury.

Pearls grow from grains of sand or other microscopic particles that are entrapped inside oysters.  Highly skilled technicians open the live pearl oysters carefully, then surgically implant a small polished shell bead and piece of mantle tissue in each.  In response, the oyster expels a smooth crystalline fluid called nacre to protect itself.  It is the nacre that coats the object ,and after a few years forms the pearl.  In the past, pearls were harvested by divers who would face the ocean's depths to retrieve the coveted and luxuriant gemstone.  However, currently the majority of pearls are harvested on pearl farms.

On the pearl farms, the pearl bearing oysters are periodically lifted from the sea for cleaning and health treatments.  Seaweed, barnacles, and other undersea growths that might impede feeding are removed from their shells.  The shells are tthen reated with medicinal compounds that discourage parasites from injuring the oysters.

At last, the oysters are ready for harvest.  Those that have survived such perils of the sea as typhoons, suffocating red tides, and attacks from predators are brought ashore and opened.  If everything has gone well, the result is a lovely, lustrous, and valuable pearl.

The jewelry market today is full of pearl products such as earrings, pendants, and necklaces.  Pearl prices vary widely depending on size, surface brilliance, shape, and color.  In general, larger pearls are much more valuable than smaller ones.  The pearl is often given as a gift for the 30th wedding anniversary It is also the birthstone for July.

Types of Pearls

Tahitian Cultured Pearls

Tahitian pearls are harvested from large, black-lipped oysters that reside in the South Seas, primarily in French Polynesia.  They are usually between 9mm-16mm in size.  Due to their complex cultivation process, Tahitian pearls are expensive and rare.  Their beautiful and unique colors can range from light grey to black, as well as green to purple.

Akoya Cultured Pearls

The most popular form, akoya pearls, have the highest luster of all pearls. They are considered the classic cultured pearl of Japan.  Akoya’s range in size between 5mm and 11mm, with the most common sizes between 6mm-8mm.  Although they are available in hues such as rose, gold, and blue-gray, the most commonly available shade of akoya is white.  The akoya pearl traditionally has been cultivated from saltwater mollusks in Japan.  In recent years, China has been successful in producing Akoya pearls within their own waters. At this time, however, they are unable to produce as brilliant a lustre as high quality Japanese Akoya cultured pearls.

South Sea Cultured Pearls

Harvested from the white-lipped pinctada maxima oyster, white South Sea cultured pearls are the largest of all pearl types.  South Sea pearls average between 11 and 13 millimeters, but can be as large as 20.  They are also the priciest on the market due to their rarity and thick nacre.  South Sea pearls come in shades of white,gold, and black with silver overtones.  They are grown in Australia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and other Pacific countries.

Freshwater Cultured Pearls

Freshwater pearls pearls can be found in bays and rivers throughout the world.  They are easily cultivated from freshwater mollusks in China, Japan, and the USA.  They appear similar to Akoya pearls, but are generally smaller, less symmetrical, and less expensive.  Their unique shapes and colors have made them popular jewelry items in recent years.  Freshwater pearls come in shades of white, black, pink, peach, lavender, plum, purple, and tangerine.  They range between 2mm-16mm.

Mabe Pearls

Mabe pearls are hemispherical cultured pearls grown against the inside shell of an oyster rather than within the oyster’s body.  They are grown in Japan, Indonesia, French Polynesia, and Australia.  They are generally used in earring or rings where it is easier to conceal their flat backs.


Because pearls are soft, it is important to give them special care.  Avoid exposing them to hair spray, lotions, or cosmetics, because these substances have the potential to dim their luster.  It is best to apply these before putting on your pearls.  Even acids contained in body oils and perspiration can damage pearls in the same way.  Store pearls in a cotton or soft fabric, encasing them away from other jewelry. Clean them only with a damp cloth.  Periodically, the pearls should be washed with a mild soap and rinsed in clear water.  If it is a necklace or bracelet, allow them to dry on a flat surface to stretch them out.  If these precautions are taken, pearls should stay vibrant and lively for years.