A pearl is a hard object produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk. Just like the shell of a clam, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form, which has been deposited in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes (baroque pearls) occur. The finest quality natural pearls have been highly valued as gemstones and objects of beauty for many centuries. Because of this, pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable.
The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously in the wild, but are extremely rare. These wild pearls are referred to as natural pearls. Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold. Imitation pearls are also widely sold in inexpensive jewelry, but the quality of their iridescence is usually very poor and is easily distinguished from that of genuine pearls. Pearls have been harvested and cultivated primarily for use in jewelry, but in the past were also used to adorn clothing. They have also been crushed and used in cosmetics, medicines and paint formulations.
Whether wild or cultured, gem-quality pearls are almost always nacreous and iridescent, like the interior of the shell that produces them. However, almost all species of shelled mollusks are capable of producing pearls (formally referred to as "calcareous concretions" by some sources) of lesser shine or less spherical shape. Although these may also be legitimately referred to as "pearls" by gemological labs and also under U.S. Federal Trade Commission rules, and are formed in the same way, most of them have no value except as curiosities.
3 Physical properties
4 Freshwater and saltwater pearls
5 Creation of a pearl
5.1 Natural pearls
5.2 Cultured pearls
5.3 Imitation pearls
5.4 Gemological identification
5.5 Value of a natural pearl
5.6 Origin of a natural pearl
5.7 Types of cultured pearls
6 Pearls from other species
7.1 Pearl hunting
7.2 Pearl farming
8 Timeline of pearl production
9 Freshwater pearl farming
10 Momme weight
11 Pearls in jewelry
11.2 Lengths of pearl necklaces
11.3 Colors of pearls
12 Religious references
12.1 Hindu scriptures
12.2 Hebrew scriptures
12.3 New Testament scriptures
12.4 Islamic scriptures
12.5 Other scriptures
13 See also
15 External links
A pearl being extracted from an akoya pearl oyster.
A black pearl and a shell of the black-lipped pearl oyster. The iridescent colors originate from nacre layers.
The English word pearl comes from the French perle, originally from the Latin perna meaning leg, after the ham- or mutton leg-shaped bivalve.
Almost any shelled mollusk can, by natural processes, produce some kind of "pearl" when an irritating microscopic object becomes trapped within its mantle folds, but the great majority of these "pearls" are not valued as gemstones. Nacreous pearls, the best-known and most commercially significant, are primarily produced by two groups of molluskan bivalves or clams. A nacreous pearl is made from layers of nacre, by the same living process as is used in the secretion of the mother of pearl which lines the shell.
Natural (or wild) pearls, formed without human intervention, are very rare. Many hundreds of pearl oysters or mussels must be gathered and opened, and thus killed, to find even one wild pearl; for many centuries, this was the only way pearls were obtained, and why pearls fetched such extraordinary prices in the past. Cultured pearls are formed in pearl farms, using human intervention as well as natural processes.
One family of nacreous pearl bivalves – the pearl oyster – lives in the sea, while the other – a very different group of bivalves – lives in freshwater; these are the river mussels such as the freshwater pearl mussel. Saltwater pearls can grow in several species of marine pearl oysters in the family Pteriidae. Freshwater pearls grow within certain (but by no means all) species of freshwater mussels in the order Unionida, the families Unionidae and Margaritiferidae.
Structure of nacre layers, wherein aragonite plates are separated by biopolymers, such as chitin, lustrin and silk-like proteins
Electron microscopy image of a fractured surface of nacre
The unique luster of pearls depends upon the reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light from the translucent layers. The thinner and more numerous the layers in the pearl, the finer the luster. The iridescence that pearls display is caused by the overlapping of successive layers, which breaks up light falling on the surface. In addition, pearls (especially cultured freshwater pearls) can be dyed yellow, green, blue, brown, pink, purple, or black. The very best pearls have a metallic mirror-like luster.
Because pearls are made primarily of calcium carbonate, they can be dissolved in vinegar. Calcium carbonate is susceptible to even a weak acid solution because the crystals of calcium carbonate react with the acetic acid in the vinegar to form calcium acetate and carbon dioxide.
Freshwater and saltwater pearls
Freshwater and saltwater pearls may sometimes look quite similar, but they come from different sources.
Freshwater pearls form in various species of freshwater mussels, family Unionidae, which live in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water. These freshwater pearl mussels occur not only in hotter climates, but also in colder more temperate areas such as Scotland (where they are protected under law). Most freshwater cultured pearls sold today come from China.
Saltwater pearls grow within pearl oysters, family Pteriidae, which live in oceans. Saltwater pearl oysters are usually cultivated in protected lagoons or volcanic atolls.
Creation of a pearl
Diagram comparing a cross-section of a cultured pearl, upper, with a natural pearl, lower
Pearls are formed inside the shell of certain mollusks as a defence mechanism against a potentially threatening irritant such as a parasite inside the shell, or an attack from outside that injures the mantle tissue. The mollusk creates a pearl sac to seal off the irritation. Pearls are commonly viewed by scientists as a by-product of an adaptive immune system-like function.
The mollusk's mantle (protective membrane) deposits layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the mineral aragonite or a mixture of aragonite and calcite (polymorphs with the same chemical formula, but different crystal structures) held together by an organic horn-like compound called conchiolin. The combination of aragonite and conchiolin is called nacre, which makes up mother-of-pearl. The commonly held belief that a grain of sand acts as the irritant is in fact rarely the case. Typical stimuli include organic material, parasites, or even damage that displaces mantle tissue to another part of the mollusk's body. These small particles or organisms gain entry when the shell valves are open for feeding or respiration. In cultured pearls, the irritant is typically an introduced piece of the mantle epithelium, with or without a spherical bead (beaded or beadless cultured pearls).
Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin. It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare.
Typically, the build-up of a natural pearl consists of a brown central zone formed by columnar calcium carbonate (usually calcite, sometimes columnar aragonite) and a yellowish to white outer zone consisting of nacre (tabular aragonite). In a pearl cross-section such as the diagram, these two different materials can be seen. The presence of columnar calcium carbonate rich in organic material indicates juvenile mantle tissue that formed during the early stage of pearl development. Displaced living cells with a well-defined task may continue to perform their function in their new location, often resulting in a cyst. Such displacement may occur via an injury. The fragile rim of the shell is exposed and is prone to damage and injury. Crabs, other predators and parasites such as worm larvae may produce traumatic attacks and cause injuries in which some external mantle tissue cells are disconnected from their layer. Embedded in the conjunctive tissue of the mantle, these cells may survive and form a small pocket in which they continue to secrete calcium carbonate, their natural product. The pocket is called a pearl sac, and grows with time by cell division; in this way the pearl grows also. The juvenile mantle tissue cells, according to their stage of growth, secrete columnar calcium carbonate from pearl sac's inner surface. In time, the pearl sac's external mantle cells proceed to the formation of tabular aragonite. When the transition to nacre secretion occurs, the brown pebble becomes covered with a nacreous coating. During this process, the pearl sac seems to travel into the shell; however, the sac actually stays in its original relative position the mantle tissue while the shell itself grows. After a couple of years, a pearl forms and the shell may be found by a lucky pearl fisher.
Main article: Cultured pearl
Nuclei from Toba Pearl Island, Japan
Cultured pearls are the response of the shell to a tissue implant. A tiny piece of mantle tissue (called a graft) from a donor shell is transplanted into a recipient shell, causing a pearl sac to form into which the tissue precipitates calcium carbonate. There are a number of methods for producing cultured pearls: using freshwater or seawater shells, transplanting the graft into the mantle or into the gonad, and adding a spherical bead as a nucleus. Most saltwater cultured pearls are grown with beads. Tradenames of cultured pearls are Akoya, white or golden South sea, and black Tahitian. Most beadless cultured pearls are mantle-grown in freshwater shells in China, and are known as freshwater cultured pearls.
Cultured pearls can be distinguished from natural pearls by X-ray examination. Nucleated cultured pearls are often 'preformed' as they tend to follow the shape of the implanted shell bead nucleus. After a bead is inserted into the oyster, it secretes a few layers of nacre around the bead; the resulting cultured pearl can then be harvested in as few as six months.
When a cultured pearl with a bead nucleas is X-rayed, it reveals a different structure to that of a natural pearl (see diagram). A beaded cultured pearl shows a solid center with no concentric growth rings, whereas a natural pearl shows a series of concentric growth rings. A beadless cultured pearl (whether of freshwater or saltwater origin) may show growth rings, but also a complex central cavity, witness of the first precipitation of the young pearl sac.
Main article: Imitation pearl
Some imitation pearls (also called shell pearls) are simply made of mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell, while others are made from glass and are coated with a solution containing fish scales called essence d'Orient. Although imitation pearls look the part, they do not have the same weight or smoothness as real pearls, and their luster will also dim greatly.
A well-equipped gem testing laboratory can distinguish natural pearls from cultured pearls by using gemological X-ray equipment to examine the center of a pearl. With X-rays it is possible to see the growth rings of the pearl, where the layers of calcium carbonate are separated by thin layers of conchiolin. The differentiation of natural pearls from non-beaded cultured pearls can be very difficult without the use of this X-ray technique.
Natural and cultured pearls can be distinguished from imitation pearls using a microscope. Another method of testing for imitations is to rub two pearls against each other. Imitation pearls are completely smooth, but natural and cultured pearls are composed of nacre platelets, making both feel slightly gritty.
Value of a natural pearl
Pearl tiara of Empress Eugénie (1853) featuring 212 natural pearls, Louvre, Paris.
Fine quality natural pearls are very rare jewels. Their values are determined similarly to those of other precious gems, according to size, shape, color, quality of surface, orient and luster.
Single natural pearls are often sold as collectors' items, or set as centerpieces in unique jewelry. Very few matched strands of natural pearls exist, and those that do often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (In 1917, jeweler Pierre Cartier purchased the Fifth Avenue mansion that is now the New York Cartier store in exchange for a matched double strand of natural pearls Cartier had been collecting for years; at the time, it was valued at $1 million USD.)
The Great Depression slashed the values of natural pearls, but there is no doubt this had been some time coming. The introduction and advance of the cultured pearl hit the pearl industry hard. Pearl dealers publicly disputed the authenticity of these new cultured products, and left many consumers uneasy and confused about their much lower prices. Essentially, the controversy damaged the images of both natural and cultured pearls. By the 1950s, when every woman could own her own cultured pearl necklace, natural pearls were reduced to a small, exclusive niche in the pearl industry.
Origin of a natural pearl
Mary, Queen of Scots wearing a rope of black pearls
Previously, natural pearls were found in many parts of the world. Present day natural pearling is confined mostly to seas off Bahrain. Australia also has one of the world's last remaining fleets of pearl diving ships. Australian pearl divers dive for south sea pearl oysters to be used in the cultured south sea pearl industry. The catch of pearl oysters is similar to the numbers of oysters taken during the natural pearl days. Hence significant numbers of natural pearls are still found in the Australian Indian Ocean waters from wild oysters. X-ray examination is required to positively verify natural pearls found today.
Types of cultured pearls
A blister pearl, a half-sphere, formed flush against the shell of the pearl oyster.
Keshi pearls, although they often occur by chance, are not considered natural. They are a byproduct of the culturing process, and hence do not happen without human intervention. They are quite small, typically only a few millimeters. Keshi pearls are produced by many different types of marine mollusks and freshwater mussels in China. Keshi pearls are actually a mistake in the cultured pearl seeding process. In seeding the cultured pearl, a piece of mantle muscle from a sacrificed oyster is placed with a bead of mother of pearl within the oyster. If the piece of mantle should slip off the bead, a pearl forms of baroque shape about the mantle piece which is entirely nacre. Therefore, a Keshi pearl could be considered superior to cultured pearls with a mother of pearl bead center. In the cultured pearl industry, the resources used to create a mistaken all nacre baroque pearl is a drain on the production of round cultured pearls. Therefore, they are trying to improve culturing technique so that keshi pearls do not occur. All nacre pearls may one day be limited to natural found pearls. Today many "keshi" pearls are actually intentional, with post-harvest shells returned to the water to regenerate a pearl in the existing pearl sac.
Tahitian pearls, frequently referred to as black pearls, are highly valued because of their rarity; the culturing process for them dictates a smaller volume output and they can never be mass-produced because, in common with most sea pearls, the oyster can only be nucleated with one pearl at a time, while freshwater mussels are capable of multiple pearl implants. Before the days of cultured pearls, black pearls were rare and highly valued for the simple reason that white pearl oysters rarely produced naturally black pearls, and black pearl oysters rarely produced any natural pearls at all.
Since the development of pearl culture technology, the black pearl oysters Pinctada margaritifera found in Tahiti and many other Pacific islands including the Cook Islands and Fiji are being extensively used for producing cultured pearls. The rarity of the black cultured pearl is now a "comparative" issue. The black cultured pearl is rare when compared to Chinese freshwater cultured pearls, and Japanese and Chinese akoya cultured pearls, and is more valuable than these pearls. However, it is more abundant than the South Sea pearl, which is more valuable than the black cultured pearl. This is simply because the black pearl oyster Pinctada margaritifera is far more abundant than the elusive, rare, and larger south sea pearl oyster Pinctada maxima, which cannot be found in lagoons, but which must be dived for in a rare number of deep ocean habitats or grown in hatcheries.
Black pearls are very rarely black: they are usually shades of green, purple, aubergine, blue, grey, silver or peacock (a mix of several shades, like a peacock's feather).
Black cultured pearls from the black pearl oyster – Pinctada margaritifera – are not South Sea pearls, although they are often mistakenly described as black South Sea pearls. In the absence of an official definition for the pearl from the black oyster, these pearls are usually referred to as "black pearls".
The correct definition of a South Sea pearl – as described by CIBJO and GIA – is a pearl produced by the Pinctada maxima pearl oyster. South Sea pearls are the color of their host Pinctada maxima oyster – and can be white, silver, pink, gold, cream, and any combination of these basic colors, including overtones of the various colors of the rainbow displayed in the pearl nacre of the oyster shell itself.
South Sea pearls are the largest and rarest of the cultured pearls – making them the most valuable. Prized for their exquisitely beautiful 'orient' or lustre, South Sea pearls are now farmed in various parts of the world where the Pinctada maxima oysters can be found, with the finest South Sea pearls being produced by Paspaley along the remote coastline of North-Western Australia. White and silver colored South Sea pearls tend to come from the Broome area of Australia, while golden colored ones are more prevalent in the Philippines and Indonesia.
A farm in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, is culturing pearls from the black lipped Pinctada mazatlanica oysters and the rainbow lipped Pteria sterna oysters. Also called Concha Nácar, the pearls from these rainbow lipped oysters fluoresce red under ultraviolet light.