Pearls are a Mother Nature‘s Miracle, rare treasures that come from the seabed and that have been adorning our bodies for millennia.
Here you will discover the differences between a cultured pearl vs natural pearl, how pearls are formed, types of pearl, their main characteristics, quality of pearls (nacre pearl, pearl luster, natural pearl colors, pearl size) , varieties of cultured pearls (cultured freshwater pearl and cultured saltwater pearl), history, etymology, etc.
We can find writings that refer to pearls from as far back as 2500 B.C., so they have been adorning our bodies for more than 4 millennia.
In India, the pearl was associated with religious beliefs and both men and women wore them.
Alexander Magnus took pearls to ancient Greece, where they were in fashion until the fall of the Roman Empire, after which they were no longer used. In the Renaissance (15th-17th centuries) an interest in pearls reappeared.
At the end of the 19th century - early 20th century, there was a great demand for pearls, leading to the overexploitation of natural pearl banks. This involved the fall of the "proliferation" of natural pearls and coincided with the appearance of the cultured pearl on the markets (1910-1920).
The name comes from the Greek word margaron, which means daughter of the sea, in reference to its origin.
The Latin translation of margaron is margarita (marguerite in English)
The pearl was in fashion in both ancient Greece and during Roman times. Roman women often wore elongated pearl earrings (pear-shaped). From here, the name was changed from margarita to perula (from pear), referring to the pearl's form. Over time, the name came to be pearl.
A pearl is an organic animal origin gem. Pearls are originated through a biological process that occurs as a result of a mollusc’s (lamellibranch or bivalve molluscs) defensive reaction, which isolates any foreign body that is inserted into its tissues (grain of sand, pieces of shells, larvae, etc.).
To defend itself, the body surrounds the foreign object with epithelial tissue and creates a depression in its mantle. This depression will continue to deepen until the foreign body is trapped in the mantle of the body and surrounded by epithelial tissue. The cells of the epithelial tissue secrete nacre, which is deposited around the foreign body in layers, giving a concentric structure to the pearl that is being formed.
These layers are formed by small tabular aragonite crystals (CaCO3) in a network of conchiolin (a set of complex proteins secreted by the epithelial tissue).
The normal growth of a pearl is between 4 or 5 layers per day (each layer is about 0.5 µm thick). The timeframe needed to produce a pearl is about 6 months (the rest of the time they hibernate), so that in three years the pearl grows 1.08 mm. The growth time for a pearl measuring 10 mm would be about 30 years.
The growth time for South Seas Pearls is almost twice as fast.
Both natural and cultured pearls have the same ecosystem:
Warm and clean waters between 20ºC and 25ºC with depths of between 10 and 20 meters. The extreme temperatures to ensure these organisms remain alive are:
10ºc minimum temperature and 28ºc maximum temperature
When temperatures are between 10 and 18 °c, oysters hibernate and their active period lasts for 6 months of the year (production period of pearls).
An oyster’s lifespan can range from 7 to 10 years, but can even extend to 30 to 40 years, depending on the species. Due to climate change and pollution, their cultivation is really complex.
Modern cultured pearls are the result of the discoveries made by the Japanese researchers Tatsuhei Mise, Tokichi Nishikawa and Kokichi Mikimoto.
The Japanese researcher Kokichi Mikimoto was the first person to successfully commercialize cultured pearls. He devoted 20 years to researching the cultivation of spherical pearls. Between 1910 and 1920 he began the cultured pearl trade.
The production of cultured pearls started with Pinctada martensi oysters (Akoya oysters). This oyster is about 7cm in diameter and has a life cycle of between 7 and 8 years.
Cultured pearls are produced on farms where oysters are also cultivated. In most cases, these oysters are grown from the time they are young, although in some areas (such as Australia) the oysters are obtained from the natural environment.
Mollusc growth during the larval stage begins with the introduction of dry branches in the water so that the oyster larvae attaches to them. The fixed larvae begin their lifecycle and after 3 years the larva reaches adulthood.
After reaching the adult stage, the valves are opened, and a spherical core of nacre from freshwater molluscs is inserted with tweezers (the diameter will vary depending on the type of mollusc), covered in part with a little piece of epithelial tissue from another oyster and then the mollusc is left to create the coating itself.
They are housed in individual mesh pockets that are suspended from chaplets, lantern baskets, pocket nets and floating or submerged trays to protect them from predators, and immersed in water. The oysters are regularly taken out of the water to clean them and to undergo any required health treatments (deworming, antibiotics, etc.). A high percentage of oysters will die, and from the remainder, only 25-30% will produce commercial quality pearls.
The cultivation period ranges from 9 months to 8 years.
Oysters: Pinctada fucata martensii and Pinctada fucata chemnitzii (these are the smaller oysters used in cultured pearls).
Oyster: Pinctada margaritifera (black-lipped)
Area: French Polynesia and around Tahiti.
Culture time: 2 to 3 years.
Culture layer: (nacre pearl) 2 to 6 mm.
Size: 9 mm to 17 mm (average 10 mm).
Shape: Round, near-round, oval, button, drop and baroque.
Color: These pearls are unique because of its natural dark colour. While they are not black, they usually present a dominant dark green bodycolor with overtones of silver, copper and "peacock" –much like the wings of a peacock with purples and blues.
Oyster: Pinctada maxima (two varieties, gold and silver lips, responsible for the colour of pearl)
Oyster: mazatlanica Pinctada and Pteria sterna
Area: The Gulf of California
Culture time: 2 years for oyster growth + 2 years for culture.
Culture layer (nacre) 0.8 - 2.3 mm.
Size: 8 mm to 14 mm (average 10 mm.)
Shape: Baroques (the vast majority), semi-baroque, round, near-round.
Colour: green with overtones of silver, purple, grey, copper, etc.
The cultivation of freshwater pearls (in freshwater, non-saline medium) generally occurs in China, but also in Japan and the United States. They are obtained from the mollusc Ikekou of the genus Unio and also from the mollusc from the genus Hyriopsis, which can produce 4 or more pearls simultaneously (a freshwater mollusc can withstand 15 insertions per valve, (although the average is 5), of different colours and shapes. They require a culture time of between 2 and 6 years. They measure up to 17 mm.
Unlike saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls are usually not as round. But you can find them in all sizes, shapes and colours, at a much more affordable price than their saltwater sisters.
They form spontaneously (without a nucleus), as a result of accidental intrusion during the cultivation period. They occur in both saltwater and freshwater.
As a general rule, they are small (because there is no nucleus), their average size is between 4 to 8 mm. Those larger than 10 mm are rare and fetch premium prices. Their shape is usually baroque. They present a wide variety of colours and because everything is nacre, they have a good "“orient” and a high sheen.
They are a hemispherical-shaped pearl, from which the nucleus has been removed. They are then filled with a resin and they will have been closed with a base of mother of pearl. They are used in jewellery for earrings and rings.
It needs to be taken into account that very often oilfields coincide with natural areas where pearls are produced, so due to pollution oyster production rarely occurs, and the same happens with the search for them.
The main production areas for natural pearls are areas near the tropics:
The Persian Gulf, Australia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Malaysia, The Red Sea, Madagascar, The Gulf of California, Panama, Venezuela
Freshwater Pearls, Rio Mississippi, Scotland, Sweden, Pakistan
MAIN PRODUCTION AREAS FOR CULTURED PEARLS
Until 1990, Japan was the home of cultured pearl production.
Currently, the production of cultured pearls in Japan is very low and it is China that is now the dominant producer. (China produces freshwater pearls and Japanese Akoya pearls).
However, Japan remains the largest cultured pearl distributor, even though they are not produced there. After China, the major producers of cultured pearls are Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar, which produce the South Sea Pearls.
Akoya and freshwater pearls are bleached routinely, and are then cleaned and polished.
Treatments to improve the colour of the pearl:
Dyeing is to apply silver nitrate to the pearl, or other types of dyes to darken the pearl’s nacre.
Irradiation, through gamma ray irradiation on the pearl, the conchiolin is attacked and a darker colour achieved.
Treatments to improve the surface finish:
In older times, if the surface of a natural pearl was damaged, this portion of surface was extracted.
Another system to restore damaged surfaces is to heat the surface and then let it cool, and adding different coatings.
Solid painted glass pearls. Some date back to Roman times, today they are no longer made.
Empty glass pearls painted with several layers of an extract known as "essence of orient" (extract of a lacquer with guanine scales, from the bluefish). They are then filled with liquid wax to give weight to the piece. They are also called "Pearls of Paris", as the inventor was a French rosary manufacturer from the 17th century.
Majorica Pearls. These pearls are a glass ball that solidifies around a rotating shaft, painted with several layers f essence of orient. They can be found in different colours.
Plastic pearls, hematite pearls (imitating the black pearl), imitations of pink pearls made with the shell of the Strombus gigas.
Nacre is an organic matter that can "age", that is, if there is desiccation it can become dull, cracks can appear and it can lose layers. So it is very important to care for pearls, avoiding dryness and excessive moisture; pearls are sensitive to acids, perspiration, cosmetics, perfumes. They need to be kept in boxes with interiors that allow perspiration and they can be easily scratched by other pieces of jewellery. Pearls should be washed with a mild soap.
Pearls are associated with purity, chastity, stability in marriage, etc.
Pearls are the birthstones that correspond to the month of June. They are given as a gift to those celebrating their 3rd and 30th wedding anniversaries.
In Vedic astrology, the Pearl is related to the Moon.
Micro-structure. The interior of the natural pearl is completely different from the cultured pearl, as natural pearls are concentric layers and layers of nacre, while cultured pearls are formed by a core of nacre and a few millimetres of coating.
Macro-structure. The pearl’s surface is not smooth, but presents a micro level (each layer is not fully completed), this micro level is the present in natural and cultured pearls, but not in imitation pearls.
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