June’s Birthstone: Pearl

Did you know, only one gemstone in the world is created by a living animal? June’s birthstone Pearl is formed and grown inside oysters and other mollusks.

Did you know, “pearls are in?” Many people have been buying pearl strands and rings from my Tucson jewelry store, especially since I specialize in color gemstone jewelry, as well as diamond engagement ring. Continuing the year’s long look at birthstones, today we’ll look at pearls.

No sparkling gemstone has fascinated people for thousands of years quite like the pearl. Signifying purity and virtue, love and wisdom, power and status: pearls were believed to emanate mystical, healing powers. Roman women slept with pearls to sweeten their dreams. Asian cultures ground them into powder for remedies and skin treatments.

Pearls also have a history as “the wedding gem.” Ancient Hindu writings tell the story of Krishna, the protector, who gathered pearls from the sea to give to his daughter on her wedding day—the start of a centuries-old tradition of pearls as the perfect adornment of the bride. To this day, pearls are a personal favorite of brides, as well as a treasured wedding gift from parent or partner to signify love.

The story of the pearl is one of the most extraordinary gems nature has ever created. Pearls are produced in certain salt and freshwater mollusks when in response to a tiny intruder lodged within, the shell soothes the irritation by enveloping it in layers of calcium carbonate — mother-of-pearl or nacre.

In the wild, this happens rarely, one in about 10,000 shells. But most pearls today are cultured—science collaborating with nature to engage and nurture this natural process. Introduced in Japan at the turn of the 20th century, pearl cultivation requires seeding technicians who skillfully insert in the mollusk a mother-of-pearl bead and/or mantle tissue as the intruder that sparks nacre production.

Implanted shells are cultivated in pristine water farms from six months to three years, depending on pearl type and desired quality. These amazing shell creatures are cradled and cared for in netted panels floating below the surface. Much like grapes grown for wine, pearl shells require optimum temperature and climate conditions, nutrients and other factors to survive and succeed. But despite the constant attention, there are no guarantees the mollusk will accept the nucleus or produce a quality pearl—it’s ultimately up to Mother Nature.

Harvesting pearls is a sustainable practice, where shells can be re-implanted several times to make more pearls. Pearl shells are used for ornamental, cosmetic and medicinal purposes.

Japan launched the cultured pearl industry with its classic Akoya at the onset of the 20th century, we entered the 21st century with an expanded world of pearls producing a range of colors, shapes and sizes in salt and freshwater farms. This incredible variety is due to the use of different pearl shells, the environments in which they live, and innovations in techniques. Akoya Pearls are born of the saltwater oyster Pinctada Fucata Martensi that comes from Japan and China. Akoya pearls range in size from 3mm to 10mm, with 5mm-8mm most popular. The classic white pearl, Akoya displays overtones of rose, cream and silver and at its best is known for its mirror-like sheen and perfectly round shape.

South Sea White and Golden Pearls are from the saltwater oyster Pinctada Maxima, silver- and golden-lipped, known for their large sizes and rich luster. Pearls grown in Australia are primarily satiny white, while the Philippines are creamy golden pearls, and Indonesia produces colors from white and cream to silver, pink and gold. These pearls are produced in sizes from 10mm to 20mm. Tahitian Pearls, in exotic dark colors, are from the Pinctada Margaritifera “black-lipped” saltwater oyster farmed in Tahiti. Referred to as black pearls, they range from light to dark gray, often showing overtones of green, blue and purple and range in sizes from 8mm to 16mm, with 8mm to 10mm most popular.

Freshwater Pearls are grown in mussels living in rivers, lakes and ponds, mainly from China, but also Japan and the United States. These pearls grow in many shapes and colors from white, dreamy pink, mauve and peach and in sizes from 3mm to 14mm. Improvements in cultivation produce Freshwaters that resemble Akoya and South Sea with a single mussel able to produce more than one pearl at a time.

What look for when purchasing pearls: Luster is the brilliance, beauty and soul of the pearl. It refers to the reflection of light from the surface of the pearl through the multiple layers of nacre deposited during its creation. The higher the quality of luster the more brilliant and pronounced the level of shine and reflection.

Surface Quality is a value factor to the extent the pearl is free of blemishes (scratch, ding, crack, peeling). Imperfections are not always a negative; it depends on type, size, number and position. Pearls with birthmarks that don’t affect overall beauty and durability, but have a lower price, are worth considering.

Nacre Quality is judged on the thickness of the nacre and how it layers to form the pearl. This factor is most important for cultured pearls that are bead nucleated like South Sea, Tahitian, Akoya and some

Freshwater. Thicker nacre allows for a much deeper, intense luster and often a more uniform surface texture. Freshwater cultured pearls are typically tissue nucleated, composed of all nacre, and predominantly baroque in shape.

Color in pearls runs the gamut from white to black, including gray, gold, pink, peach and mauve. The natural color of a pearl is a mix of overall body color and overtones (subtle colors that look almost translucent over the main color). Presence of overtone and orient (underlying iridescent play of color) makes a pearl more valuable.

Shape is divided into spherical, symmetrical and baroque. Spherical pearls are judged on their roundness. Symmetrical pearls (oval, drop, button) are judged on their symmetry. Baroque pearls are more freeform and organic in shape. Most rare are round pearls, with round, fine pearls among the most expensive. Baroque pearls are most exciting for bespoke designers.

Size is measured in millimeters (1mm=1/25 inch), ranging as small as 1mm up to 20mm. Typically, the larger the size, the higher the price.

Caring for pearls: Pearls are resilient and meant to be worn, but they are also delicate and require thoughtful care to keep their radiance for a lifetime. The layers of nacre that create it are absorbent, so that things like cosmetics, hairspray, perfume, ammonia and chlorine affect pearl condition. Let your pearl jewelry be the last thing you put on before heading out the door and the first thing you take off before engaging in activities where pearls are vulnerable to chemicals and hard knocks.

Pearls are easy to maintain, just wipe clean after each wear with a soft, dry or damp cloth. Ultrasonic cleaners are not recommended. Stow pearls in sectioned jewelry box or protective pouches to avoid getting scratched by other hard gemstones and metals. If you wear your pearl strands often, restring them every two years, and periodically check settings that embrace pearls to ensure they’re secure.

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