Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Beauty of Pearls

Image from

Valued as a gemstone and an object of beauty, "pearl" has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, and valuable, and synonymous with the word elegance.


The English word "pearl" comes from the French "perle" originally from the Latin "pema" meaning leg, after the ham- or mutton leg-shaped bivalve. A bivalve is a class of marine and freshwater molluscs that have a laterally compressed body enclosed by a shell in two hinged parts. (i.e., clams, oysters, mussels and numerous others. See picture to right.)

The ideal pearl is round and smooth, however, pearls come in many shapes. A natural or "wild pearl," formed without human intervention is very rare.  For many years, finding and opening (and thus killing) hundreds of mollusks just to find one wild pearl was the only way they were gathered.  Now with the ability to "farm" pearls, cultured pearls (pearls made by nature with human intervention) make up the majority of pearls available on the market.

What is it?
Natural pearls are 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin.  Viewed by scientists as a by-product of an immune system-like function, pearls are produced when microscopic irritants become trapped in the mollusk's mantle folds. The mollusk produces a sac to seal off the irritation and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant.

Physical Characteristics.
The luster of any pearl depends on the reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light from the translucent layers. The thinner and the more numerous the layers, the finer the luster. The iridescence is caused by overlapping layers that break up light. The very best pearls have an almost metallic,        mirror-like luster. In fact, according to jewelers, luster is the most important differentiation among all the qualities.  Pearls, especially the cultured freshwater pearls (explained below) can be dyed. 
Teardrop Sea Glass & Pearl Clip on Earrings (freshwater pearls)

Saltwater & Freshwater Pearls.

Although they look similar they come from different sources.  Forming in various species of freshwater mussels, freshwater pearls can be found in ponds, lakes, and rivers. Saltwater pearls originate in pearl oysters found in the oceans.

Cultured Pearls.
Cultured pearls are created in response to a tissue (irritant) implant within the mantle of the mollusk. This graft will form a pearl sac and the tissue will precipitate calcium carbonate into this pocket. Cultured pearls can be differentiated from natural pearls by x-ray examination (See diagram to left).  Most pearls on the market are cultured with the greatest majority coming from China and Japan.

Is it real?
Imitation pearls may look like the real thing, but will not have the same weight, texture or luster.  Some imitation pearls are made from mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell while others may be made of glass and coated with a special solution containing fish-scales. Don't have an x-ray machine handy? You can do a quick test by rubbing two pearls together. Imitation pearls will be smooth, while cultured or natural pearls, composed of nacre platelets, will have a gritty feel against each other.

A lot of work....and time.
Before the 20th century, "pearl hunting" was the most common method, as divers pulled oysters from the ocean floors and river bottoms and individually checked for pearls. In as many as several tons, maybe four perfect pearls would be found. Farming pearls is also a long process. After grafts are made, it may be anywhere from one to seven years until harvest, depending on the pearl type.

On the Moh's scale of hardness pearls range from 2.5 to 4.5. Because pearls are organic they are 
KJK Pearl & Gems Clip on Drop Earrings
sensitive to acids, extreme heat, dry conditions as well as moist ones. Wipe pearls with a soft lint-free cloth as soon as you take them off. A dampened cloth can be used however, make sure pearls are dry before storage. Never put pearl jewelry in an ultrasonic cleaner, or use solutions that contain ammonia or harsh detergents. Extra care should be used in their storage. Pearls should be stored separately with other jewelry to avoid scratching or damage.

The mystic & folklore.
The pearl was adopted by the American National Association of Jewelers in 1912. It is considered the modern birthstone for the month of June as well as the birthstone for Sun Signs Gemini and Cancer. Pearls are also the traditional 3rd anniversary gift, the modern 12th anniversary gift, and certainly the 30th "Pearl Jubilee" anniversary gift.  Incorporated into many cultures mythology, pearls have been said to increase wealth (black or gold pearls), success (pink) and love (blue). Others claim it has protection power, especially for children. We can't forget it's purity attribute, as many brides wear pearls on their wedding day.

Cliptomania offers many non-pierced earrings featuring a variety of pearls, in various shapes, sizes and colors. To see these, click Genuine Pearls or do an Advanced Search using the filter option for pearl type.

Pearls In Myth,, 2011, 7/16/12.
Pearl,, no date, 7/13/12.
Pearl Facts,, 2012, 7/17/12.
Birthstone Clip Earrings, Clip On Anniversary Earrings,, 2012, 7/17/12.