Once thought to be the tears of the Gods, pearls are one of nature’s perfect gems. They form in oysters and mussels in response to an irritation such as a grain of sand. Layers of nacre are secreted around the grain of sand and eventually a pearl is formed. Pearls either form naturally or are cultured, in which an irritant such as a small bead is placed in an oyster by a human being. Pearls are found in both fresh and salt water.
Pearl quality is affected by several factors including its luster, that is, how the light reflects off the pearl, size, shape, color, and whether any blemishes are present. Pearls are sized in millimeters such as 7.0 mm, for example. If you are not sure whether the pearls are real, try the “grit” test. If the pearls feel gritty against your teeth, then they are real. If not, then they are plastic.
When purchasing pearls, it is important to examine the surface carefully. A high-quality pearl should have a bright and shiny appearance. You should be able to see your reflection in a high-quality pearl. Lower quality pearls have a more milky or chalky appearance. Also, check the surface of the pearl to make sure it is smooth and free of discoloration or other defects. The perfect pearl should be round, smooth and shiny.
The next thing to look for in a pearl is color. This is an area where personal taste can and should overtake what is valuable. There are colors of pearls that are rarer than others in nature but this should not be the determining factor. When purchasing pearls, color should be based on personal taste and what looks best on your skin tone. With that being said, pearls range in color from white to black with every color in-between. So, it should be easy to find a high-quality pearl in just the right color to suit your taste.
Certain pearls are associated with specific jewelry periods or styles. For example natural pearls, which are very rare, were used in jewelry prior to the 1920s. Freshwater pearls were featured prominently in the delicate styles typical of jewelry of the Arts and Crafts (ca. 1900-1915) period as well as Art Nouveau (ca. 1895-1905 ) and Edwardian or Belle Epoque jewelry. Parrures (necklace, bracelets, brooches, and pendant earrings en suite) made from tiny seed pearls were popular during the early Victorian period (ca. 1840-1865). Later Victorian jewelry styles also featured seed pearls primarily as accents.
Freshwater pearls are found in rivers in Scotland, Ireland, France, Austria, and the Mississippi River in the United States. They range in size from 3.0 to 7.0 mm in size, and are the least consistent in terms of size and shape. They are also the least expensive. Freshwater pearls are typically irregular in shape, round or oval to pear or button-shaped. The color ranges from white to cream, pale pink, silvery white or lavender.
Seed pearls are approximately the size of a small plant seed and are not cultivated specifically for use in jewelry. They form as an “extra” pearl in an oyster where another larger pearl has formed. They are typically whiter in color and range in size from 0.5 mm to 5 mm. (See Victorian Seed Pearl Jewelry).
Salt Water Cultured Pearls
Akoya pearls from Japan are the quintessential saltwater cultured pearl. Less expensive than natural pearls, they are the most common type of pearl used for modern necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Cultured pearls are more consistently symmetrical and round in shape, and are higher quality than freshwater pearls are. They are white in color, often with rose tones. Sizes range from 6.0 to 8.5 mm.
Tahitian and South Sea Pearls
Tahitian and South Sea cultured pearls are the highest quality pearls that are available. They range in size from 9.0 to 13 mm in size. Tahitian cultured pearls are a greenish, bluish, grayish or black color with iridescent or silvery tones. South Sea cultured pearls are white in color with silver or gold tones. Tahitian and South Sea cultured pearls are generally used for necklaces including pendants, earrings, and rings, or occasionally as accents in brooches or bracelets.