Pearl – Your Complete Guide

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With their exceptional beauty and fascinating origins, pearls have been highly prized by ancient civilisations for over several millennia. They have extensively pursued thousands of years ago throughout the waters of the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Gulf of Mannar. Chinese divers are first recorded to have hunted pearls as early as 206 BC, throughout the South China Sea. Prior to the 1900s, manually hunting for pearls was the most common method of retrieval. In recent times, however, naturally occurring pearls are extremely rare and most that are sold on the market today are created through a special process on oyster farms.

Facts About Pearls

  • The only precious gems to develop from within the body of an organic creature (a mollusc)
  • Three categories exist: Freshwater, Saltwater and Conch
  • Mohs hardness rating of 2.5 – 4.5 (meaning they can be worn as jewellery, but special care must be taken to prevent damage)
  • It’s the birthstone of June
  • Derived from the words ‘perle’ (Old French), ‘perla’ (Medieval Latin), ‘perna’ (Classical Latin)
  • Have been synonymous with weddings and love since antiquity
  • They’re found in a whole myriad of different colours including white, black, purple, yellow, blue and the list goes on

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are comprised of calcium carbonate, along with a complex protein known as conchiolin, which is discharged by the mantle of a mollusc. It is believed that natural pearls are formed when a tiny invasive sea creature or parasite makes its way into a bivalve mollusc and attempts to take shelter within the shell. The mollusc reacts by secreting the calcium carbonate and conchiolin, wrapping the parasite within a cocoon of pearlescent cells. The process is repeated multiple times over, finally resulting in a pearl.

Cultured Pearls

The process of retrieving pearls from molluscs has always been difficult and time consuming. Add to this is the fact that naturally occurring pearls only develop under specific conditions; not every mollusc shell contains a spectacular pearl. In recent times, the discovery of natural pearls has been exceedingly rare, due to the pearl hunting efforts of countless previous generations.

To counter this, scientists developed a way of replicating the production of natural pearls, by gathering a minute piece of mantle tissue from one shell and depositing it into the mantle of another shell, or by placing a spherical shaped bead into the gonad of the other. Cultured pearls are able to be told apart from natural pearls through an X-Ray test, which reveals distinct differences in their structure.

Artificial Pearls

Unlike cultured pearls, artificial pearls are composed of entirely synthetic materials, such as plastic and shell, which then undergo a series of processes to give the appearance of real pearls. These days, cultured pearls are very affordable, with fake pearls only being worn at party events, budget theatre productions or the like.

How Valuable Are Pearls?

This primarily depends on whether the pearl is natural or cultured. Natural pearls are scarce, so their value is many times that of a cultured one. Beyond this, the quality of a pearl is measured by a number of factors, including its lustre, shape, size, and colour, among others.

Treatment Processes

A number of treatment processes are employed to alter the colour of pearls to suit.

Bleach – this is used to erase evidence of black conchiolin.

Dye – signs of this treatment can be seen near the drill hole.

Radiation – used to convert a pearl to a greyish colour, while helping to create a richer, more fuller colour for pearls that possess a green hue.

Looking After Pearl Jewellery

Despite being somewhat fragile and prone to damage if not properly looked after, jewellers have been making breathtaking pearl jewellery pieces since the time they were first discovered. In order to ensure that your jewellery isn’t accidentally tarnished or worse, follow these simple steps.

  1. Keep your pearl jewellery in a separate storage box, as pearls are easily scratched.
  2. Be sure to apply personal fragrances before putting you put your pearl jewellery on, as these can contain abrasive agents that can damage your pearls.
  3. Gently clean your jewellery with a wet cloth upon wearing them.
  4. Avoid dunking your jewellery into soapy water. Instead, carefully wipe it with a wet cloth and mildly concentrated soapy water.
  5. Never mechanical cleaning systems to clean pearl jewellery.

If you need additional advice on looking after your alexandrite jewellery, consult your local jeweller.

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