Pearls have been cherished by mankind for centuries. Their beautiful soft luster and colorful overtones make them a staple in many wardrobes around the world. When someone hears the word “pearl” most people think of a white or black round object created by an oyster. What many don’t know is that there are numerous shapes, colors, and species of pearls and that most pearls that are seen in the jewelry trade today are actually cultured or farmed. Cultured pearls have a nucleus, which can be a bead, a piece of tissue, shell, or mud. The nucleus is inserted into the mantle of the oyster. The oyster then covers the nucleus with layers of nacre over a period of time. After many months to years the oyster is opened and the pearl removed. This process can sometimes be performed multiple times to a single oyster over its lifetime.
Pearls can be cultured in either saltwater or freshwater environments. Saltwater pearls are farmed right in the environment that they would normally be found in. This means that the pearl farmers are at the mercy of the weather, tides, and water quality that are found in the bays, gulfs, or seas that the oysters are raised. Freshwater pearl farmers often keep their oysters in man-made lakes so that they can control the quality of the water and keep diseases at bay. Many years ago freshwater pearls were raised in the lakes and rivers that they were naturally found but due to pollution this practice has waned.
Golden South Sea Pearl Necklace
Saltwater pearls can come from many varieties of mollusk but the three main varieties of oyster that are cultured are South Sea, Tahitian, and Akoya. South sea pearls come from the Pinctada maxima oyster. It is found in the waters around Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and the South Pacific islands. It is the largest oyster used in the cultured pearl trade. The pearls take 18-24 months to form a sufficient layer of nacre around a nucleus to create a finished pearl. Most pearls produced by the South Sea oysters are 8 – 20 millimeters. They have a distinct golden or silver outer edge to the inside of their shell giving them the common names of golden-lipped or silver-lipped oysters. The golden-lipped variety produces pearls that range in color from light yellow to bright gold. The silver-lipped variety produces pearls that are white, silvery-white, to cream.
Tahitian Pearl Necklace with a silver lipped oyster shell
Tahitian pearls are produced by the Pinctada margaritifera oyster. They can be cultured in the waters around Tahiti and French Polynesia. The pearls range in size from 8 to 17 millimeters and can take 18 to 24 months to grow. The oysters that produce Tahitian pearls are often referred to as black-lipped oysters because of the dark gray to black edging on their shells. The pearls that come from these oysters are often light gray to silver to black and can have beautiful overtones.
Akoya Pearl Strand with an akoya oyster shell
Akoya pearls are produced by the Pinctada fucata martensii otherwise known as the Akoya oyster. These oysters are native to the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the waters around India, China, Korea, and Japan. The pearls take 10 to 18 months to form and range in size from 2 to 10 millimeters. The pearls are typically white to cream in color with some pearls showing a beautiful pink overtone.
Lilac Genusis Pearls on a freshwater mussel shell
Freshwater pearls have historically come from many different species of mollusk, typically mussels that live in freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds. Today there are just a few that are mainly used to grow cultured freshwater pearls. The triangle snail mussel or Hyriopsis cumingi is the traditional freshwater pearl mussel. These mussels produce pearls through the use of tissue grafts only. Around the turn of the century the Chinese imported the Japanese Hyriposis schlegeli or the Biwa Pearly Mussel. The Biwa mussels are famous for being the first species successfully farmed for cultured freshwater pearls. The two species were hybridized and the offspring are called “Tsu Die Bang” which loosely translates to “the leisure mussel”. This hybrid is the only freshwater mussel variety that is able to be bead nucleated. These are currently the most common variety of freshwater pearl seen today in the market. The freshwater pearl can range in color from pink to purple, yellow to cream and white.
From the sea to inland lakes, pearls are prized for their beauty and elegance. Each variety has its own unique quality that we can’t help but fall in love with.