Diamond Designs and More

The Origins and Creation of Cultured Pearls

 

Throughout history, the pearl, with its warm inner glow and shimmering iridescence, has been one of the most highly prized and sought-after gems. Countless references to the pearl can be found in the religions and mythology of cultures from the earliest times.

Unlike gemstones produced deep inside the Earth, pearls are created by living creatures called mollusks. Mollusks commonly have a soft, unsegmented body and a hard exterior shell, such as a clam or snail has. These animals live in marine and freshwater habitats as well as on land.

Any mollusk that produces a shell can produce a pearl. Nevertheless, naturally occurring pearls are rare, found in perhaps one of every 10,000 animals.  As a result, two types of pearl industries resulted:

  • The cultured pearl industry, which has flourished since the early 20th century, has developed techniques to greatly improve these odds. Indeed, more pearls are produced now than at any time in human history.
  • Imitation Pearls: Records indicate that the ancient Romans made imitation pearls. And Queen Elizabeth I of England, whose passion for pearls is apparent in every portrait of her, is said to have established an artificial pearl industry to supply what nature could not. The techniques for manufacturing imitation pearls have varied over the centuries and today include coating glass beads with a mixture of varnish and fish scales or flakes of the mineral mica.

Today’s high-end jewelry primarily uses Cultured Pearls,  which may be marine cultured or fresh water cultured.

Until the early 1900's, natural pearls were accessible only to the rich and famous. In 1916, famed French jeweler Jacques Cartier bought his landmark store on New York's famous Fifth Avenue — by trading two pearl necklaces for the valuable property. When cultured pearls first appeared on the market in the early 20th century, many people viewed them as second-rate "imitation" gems. Today, however, modern culturing techniques can produce pearls that rival or exceed natural pearls in size and beauty. A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a parasite or piece of shell that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster's soft inner body where it cannot be expelled. To ease this irritant, the oyster's body takes defensive action. The oyster begins to secrete a smooth, hard crystalline substance around the irritant in order to protect itself. This substance is called "nacre." As long as the irritant remains within its body, the oyster will continue to secrete nacre around it, layer upon layer. Over time, the irritant will be completely encased by the silky crystalline coatings. And the result, ultimately, is the lovely and lustrous gem called a pearl.
(The nacre is not just a soothing substance. It is composed of microscopic crystals of calcium carbonate, aligned perfectly with one another, so that light passing along the axis of one crystal is reflected and refracted by another to produce a rainbow of light and color). To culture freshwater mussels, workers slightly open their shells, cut small slits into the mantle tissue inside both shells, and insert small pieces of live mantle tissue from another mussel into those slits. In freshwater mussels that insertion alone is sufficient to start nacre production. Most cultured freshwater pearls are composed entirely of nacre, just like their natural freshwater and natural saltwater counterparts.

On average, only 50 % of nucleated oysters survive to bear pearls, and of them, only 20 % bear pearls that are marketable. The rest are simply too imperfect, too flawed to be called jewels. And so, a perfect pearl is truly a rare event, blessed by Nature. Less than 5 % of nucleated oysters yield pearls of such perfect shape, lustre and color as to be considered fine gem quality.

 

 
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