Pearls are unique from other types of gemstones as they originate from living creatures in the sea. Other precious and semi-precious gems like diamonds, emeralds and rubies are found in rock formations on land.
There are many different types of pearls, but all have the beautiful, defining shimmer that has made them a popular choice for jewellery for thousands of years.
What is A Pearl?
Pearls are natural gemstones that are formed in oysters or mussels. They develop over a relatively short amount of time compared to other gemstones and a single pearl can be created in just a few years.
Pearls are the world’s oldest recognised gemstone. The earliest record of pearls being used for jewellery was found in near Abu Dhabi, in the sarcophagus of a Persian princess who lived 8000 years ago.
The love of pearls stems from their beautiful appearance. They come primarily in colours of white, pale pink and cream but pearls of almost any colour can be found from blue to purple to orange-gold.
Although the appearance and origin of pearls can vary quite a bit, their chemical composition remains similar. Pearls are made of a crystalline substance called nacre which consists of calcium carbonate and proteins.
Pearls could only be obtained by divers swimming down to the depths of the sea bed and retrieving oysters, which weren’t guaranteed to contain the coveted gem. As their popularity grew in circles of nobility and royalty across western Europe, the demand led to a significant decrease in availability of oysters.
Types of pearl
Pearls can be classified based on their colour, texture, the mollusc they originate from and the location of origin.
One key distinction is whether a pearl is freshwater or saltwater. Freshwater pearls grow in mussels that exist in lakes and gentle rivers whereas saltwater pearls grow in oysters that exist in ocean inlets.
Today, cultured freshwater pearls are overwhelmingly produced in China. Saltwater pearls can technically be found in oceans across the globe; however, their depleted supplies mean they are only found infrequently.
There are many different types of pearls but the ones we see most often fall into four categories: the south sea pearl, Tahitian pearl, akoya pearl and freshwater pearl.
South Sea pearls are found in the southern waters of Australia, Indonesia, Burma, New Guinea and the Philippines. They are some of the largest pearls and range from 9-16mm in diameter.
These pearls are developed in white, silver and gold-lipped oysters. The south sea pearls therefore can be found in colours of white, silver, pale pink, pale gold and a deeper gold colour
Tahitian pearls are only recently growing in popularity. They are found in the oceans of French Polynesia, Mexica and Panama and are typically around 8-18mm in dimeter.
The typical image of a pearl is white, silver or pale pink. Tahitian pearls are produced in black lipped oysters and therefore have much darker colours which explains why they were less popular in previous years.
The beautiful and stylish Tahitian pearl comes in grey, black, dark green and deep purple. Occasionally, lighter coloured pearls in pinks and yellows will be produced in black lipped oysters but they will retain a grey overtone.
Akoya pearls need more specific conditions to develop than other pearls. The akoya oysters must be a minimum of 3 years old before an irritant can be implanted.
They are found in waters of Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Australia and are some of the smallest pearls with diameters ranging from 3-10mm.
These stunning pearls have blue/grey colours ranging light pale blue or grey to deep, dark indigo. Akoya pearls are commonly bleached to have white and pale pink tones before being used in jewellery.
Unlike other types of pearls produced in oysters, freshwater pearls are developed in mussels in slow rivers and lakes. Freshwater pearls rarely occur naturally, but most are cultured and farmed in China
Freshwater pearls naturally come in colours of white, cream and pale pinks and yellows. Mussels can produce many more pearls in a lifetime than oysters can, and the size of the pearl depends on how long it spends in the water.
Pearls are an ideal choice for jewellery. From being given as gifts to ancient royalty to shining on modern runways, they have upheld an image of class and beauty for thousands of years.
When looked after correctly, pearl earrings won’t lose their lustre even when passed through generations. Their evergreen, durable qualities mean that just one set of pearl earrings will make an elegant outfit addition throughout a lifetime.
How Pearls are Made
Pearls are famously developed in oysters and mussels which can be found in saltwater and freshwater across the world. They can form naturally or can be cultured in pearl farms.
First, an irritant has to enter the shell of an oyster by chance and attach to the flesh of an oyster. The oyster will initially attempt to get rid of the irritant but if it can’t the pearl-producing mechanism is triggered.
The irritant in question could be a number of things but is unlikely to be sand. Instead, it could be a fragment of bone, shell, grit or coral. The production of pearls is actually a self-defence mechanism of the oyster to protect it from further damage of the irritant.
The flesh of the oyster contains epithelial cells that produce a crystalline substance known as nacre. When the irritant is embedded in the flesh, the cells produce nacre to cover the irritant, layer by layer.
The process can take a considerable amount of time as pearls can take years to develop into their final form. It is possible for oysters to naturally grow more than one pearl at a time, but it is rare for more than 2 pearls to be present in one oyster at a time.
The formation of natural pearls requires stable sea temperatures and a clean water environment. Unfortunately, as climate change accelerates and sea pollution increases, these conditions are harder and supplies of natural pearls are dwindling.
Are Cultured Pearl Earrings Real?
Natural, salt water pearls are notoriously expensive and rarely found in new jewellery. Most of the pearls on the market today are cultivated and harvested in pearl farms.
In 1893, a Japanese man named Kockichi Mikimoto discovered a method of farming pearls. He found that pearls could be developed by purposely placing an irritant in oysters.
Thanks to his discovery, hundreds of pearl farms were set up in Japan leading to an export of 10 million pearls per year by 1935.
At first, some doubted that the cultured pearls were legitimate. However, it was soon proved that cultures pearls have the same chemical composition of natural pearls.
Cultured pearls are grown in tightly controlled conditions and given a great deal of care. The pearls still take years to develop and the oysters are carefully managed and protected throughout that time. This also allows pearls to form with much higher regularity.
Since cultured pearls are much easier to develop and many can be produced at the same time, their cost is much lower than that of natural pearls formed by chance. This means that genuine, beautiful pearl jewellery is accessible to many more people.
Despite their availability and lower price, there are still many fake pearls made of plastic on the market. Some will be obviously fake and sold as such whereas other fake pearls will be sold as real.
Genuine pearls both cultured and natural are pretty easy to spot. If there are doubts about a pearl being real, simply rub the pearl on the front, flat surface of a tooth. Genuine pearls will feel gritty while plastic pearls will feel smooth.
Looking After Pearl Earrings
Pearls are durable and long-lasting, but all jewellery requires some level of love and care. To look after your pearl earrings and ensure they don’t get damaged or lose their lustre, there are several steps you can take.
Firstly, pearl earrings should be kept in an individual cloth bag when being stored, especially if being stored with other gemstones such as diamonds which are hard enough to scratch and damage the pearl surface.
Pearls should also have limited contact with any acidic substances. Perfume in particular should be applied and dry before putting pearl jewellery on. Once the pearl earrings are removed, they should be wiped with a simple cloth before being stored.
Finally, pearls tend to lust their lustre and begin to degrade when exposed to extreme heat. Don’t use hairdryers on pearls and remember not to leave them in the hot sun for long periods of time.
How to Wear Pearl Earrings
Pearls are beautifully versatile. They are a timeless accessory that can be worn with any outfit. The range of colours, textures, sizes and shape means that there is a set of gorgeous pearl earrings perfectly tailored for any environment.
For a simple work or professional look, why not try out a pair of elegant pearl studs in a classic white or pale pink. The shimmering pearls will stylishly complete a well-presented appearance that commands respect and admiration. And, for a slightly edgier look, switch the white pearl for a grey or blue pearl stud.
Pearl earrings can also be a fantastic option for casual daily wear. Whether it’s a pair of jeans or fun summer dress, pearl earrings can pull the look together and add a touch of elegance.
Dangly pearl earrings can be shown off with an elegant up-do to match formal attire. Pearls are the obvious choice for weddings, parties and dates. The classic white will result in a beautiful appearance while other colours of pearl earring will make a stunning statement.