A pearl is an organic gemstone that is created over many years within an oyster, mussel or clam. Pearls occur in both saltwater and freshwater, can be natural or cultured, and come in all shapes and sizes. In general, there are seven factors by which to value a pearl: size, shape, colour, lustre, nacre thickness and match. Different combinations of these factors will affect the price and appeal of the pearl. For example, if creating a pair of earrings, match of size, colour and lustre will be more important than the other factors. Natural perfectly round pearls are incredibly rare; that is why a string of natural pearls in graduated, or the same, size, with the same colour and lustre can take many years to collect.
In 1885 Mikimoto Kokichi successfully patented the procedure to create cultured pearls, a process that took him many years and brought him to the brink of bankruptcy before eventual success. With the creation of cultured pearls came the ability to create pearls with the highest lustres and best desirable factors. There are four major types of cultured whole pearls:
- Akoya—This type is most familiar to many jewellery customers. Japan and China both produce saltwater akoya cultured pearls.
- South Sea—Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines are leading sources of these saltwater cultured pearls.
- Tahitian—Cultivated primarily around the islands of French Polynesia (the most familiar of these is Tahiti), these saltwater cultured pearls usually range from white to black.
- Freshwater—These are usually cultured in freshwater lakes and ponds. They’re produced in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colours. China and the US are the leading sources.
Pearls, like many of the precious gemstones, have been admired for millennia. A pearl fragment was found in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess dating back to 520 BC and is on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Mary I, Queen of England, loved her pearl, the Peregrina, and wore it often, as a brooch or pendant. The pearl appears in many portraits of her. There are many religious references to pearls in Hindu, Hebrew, Islamic and New Testament scriptures, to name but a few. Pearls are a classic that can easily add glamour to any outfit or accessory.