|Image via Akoya Pearl|
|Image via Shreve, Crump, & Low|
Look how beautifully the pearls in this brooch are graduated.
|Image via Bijouterie Sudha|
Can you just imagine the first guy to crack open a mollusk and find a pearl? I'm sure he was mystified as well as enchanted. I've always felt a bit of an attachment to pearls. As a kid, we used to pry open freshwater mussels out of Sam Rayburn Reservoir in East Texas looking for pearls. Mostly what we found were tiny, flat lumps on the side of the shell but every once in a while, just often enough to maintain the hunt, we would find a nice pearl. By nice I mean a free-floating whopper of 2-3mm. But it was my first exposure to pearls as well as to the truly unexpected odd-ball beauty that God hides in the world for us.
|Image via eHow|
So here you've got this funky, dirty river mussel with a great name like the Texas pimpleback or the fatmucket that you slugged out of the muck and after you've chopped and pried at it for awhile the hinge snaps and the mussel creaks open to reveal.... grossness. So you slide your finger in under the mantel and after a second or two you feel it.
|Image via TN History for Kids|
Oh look- a pearl!
Pearls are the only birthstone that do not need to be cut, faceted, or polished. Pearls are also the only birthstone formed as a result of biological activity of a living organism, the mollusk. Mollusks are a huge phylum of invertebrate animals, of which there are about 85,000 named species. It is the largest marine phylum, making up about 23% of named marine organisms but there are freshwater and terrestrial species as well. Oysters and mussels are the mollusk friends who give us pearls.
|Image via Kevin Main Jewelry|
Now, you don't find a pearl resting luxuriously on a clean bed of satin sheets, awaiting your ring setting. It's much more... slimy.
|Image via Kari Pearls|
So let's begin. An oyster is a living organism.
|Image via Pearl Magpie|
I love this picture.
Like all living things, oysters can get irritated. Maybe it's a tiny parasite, a bit of food, or a grain of sand which the oyster cannot eject that gets the pearl ball rolling but something gets inside the oyster (or mussel) and starts to annoy and chafe at all those lovely soft internal organs. Like the tiniest of pebbles in your shoe, the irritant, well, irritates so in response the oyster secretes a substance called nacre, the oyster's saliva. Nacre is composed of calcium carbonate and something called conchiolin, which acts to hold the calcium carbonate together. Nacre is continuously deposited along the inside of the shell as a defense mechanism as well as for structural integrity. On the inner side of the shell, nacre is called Mother of Pearl. In a ball around a nasty irritating bit it is called a pearl.
|Image via Physics.Wisc.edu|
Nacre is continuously laid down in thin layers around the pearl or over the shell and is surprisingly light as well as very strong.
|Image via Berkeley Lab|
Scientists have been working to understand and recreate this strength and structure for such uses as artificial bones, dental implants, airplane manufacturing, and computer components. How cool is that?
Cultured pearls, on the other hand, are formed after human intervention. A tiny bead or a bit of tissue nucleus is inserted into the pearl oyster, for saltwater pearls, or into mussels for freshwater pearls. Cultured pearls are fully pearls, not fake pearls. The difference between natural and cultured pearls can be seen only by x-ray in order to get a look at the center, but other than that they are as much a pearl as natural pearls.
|Photomicrographic image of a pearl via Molecular Expressions|
I want a print of this for my wall.
Cultured saltwater pearls come primarily from the akoya oyster pearl and are farmed extensively in Japan and China. The techniques for growing round, rather than flat or misshapen cultured pearls, were developed by Kokichi Mikimoto, the son a Japanese noodle-maker. Today, Mikimoto pearls are highly sought after and are considered to be among the best cultured pearls.
|Circa 1950's vintage Mikimoto pearl earrings. Image via Antique Jewelry Mall.|
Cultured freshwater pearls come out of mussels as opposed to pearl oysters. There may be as many as 50 pearls in one mussel. While they can be farmed in any body of fresh water, a large percentage of freshwater pearl farms are located in the Yangtze River delta of China. Freshwater pearls are known for their wide variety of colors and shapes and are generally more affordable than saltwater pearls. However, the rounder they become the more their value increases. Japan and the United States are significant producers of freshwater pearls but once again, it is China that leads the way. Pearls farmed on Lake Biwa in Japan were of such nice quality that for a period of time all freshwater pearls were called Biwa pearls. However, pollution in the lake began to seriously damage pearl production by the 1970'S. Chinese freshwater pearls, however, began a dramatic climb in quality in the 1980's after a rough start. Remember the "rice krispie" pearls in the 70's? OK, well, some of us do.
|Image via Sudlow Jewelry on Etsy|
South Sea and Tahitian pearls are the fourth type of pearl used in jewelry. South Sea pearls are cultivated in Australia and parts of Indonesia and while these pearls may be up to 20mm in size, they are hard to cultivate. Tahitian pearls come to us from the French Polynesian Islands and can be black, grey, or green-black, bronze-black, even a pinkish variety. Round Tahitian pearls, because they are so difficult to produce, can command very high prices.
|Image via Sunday Observer|
To be honest, there are so many variations of pearls I'm sort of at a loss as to how to present them here. And we still haven't gotten to the history and mystery of pearls. Let's take a quick look at the shapes.
|Image via Gold and Pearl|
|Image via Espy Jewelry|
|Image via Chicago Silver|
|Image via Creeping Vine Designs|
|Image via Cerise & Co.|
|Image via Wikimeida Commons|
|Sorting Pearls. Image via Kari Pearls|
|Ancient Roman earring, second to fourth century AD|
Image via The Pearl Professor
To the ancient Romans, pearls were worn to indicate wealth and prestige. In numerous cultures through-out the centuries, efforts were made to limit who could wear pearls through laws and coercion. The Greeks believed that pearls were the tears of joy shed from Aphrodite as she was born from the sea. Over in Egypt, in an incident that is generally agreed to have occurred, Cleopatra challenge Marc Anthony to a bet to see who could produce the most expensive meal. At the banquet, Cleopatra called for a simple vessel of sour wine, or vinegar. She removed one of her pearl earring, estimated now to be worth thousands of pounds of gold, and dropped it into the vinegar. The pearl dissolved in the acidic vinegar and our girl Cleo drank it down. The wealth of a nation in one cup. I hope she smacked her lips as she won that contest. If you're interested, click here for a USA Today article about the chemistry of Cleopatra's pearl cocktail and how it could have been concocted.
|Portion of The Banquet of Cleopatra by Giambattista Tiepolo, Italian, 1743|
Image via The Age
Let's go back to the four considerations in valuing pearls, just in case you're in the market. I'll quote from Pearls of Joy, again for clarity's sake:
When dealing with cultured pearls there are several factors that will determine the overall value of a pearl. The biggest factor is shape, round pearls almost always command the highest price but many love the uniqueness of baroque and off round pearls as well. Read more about pearl shape here.
The surface of a pearl is another important factor to consider, the cleaner the pearl's surface the better. A pearl is a natural gemstone so there will always be some form of imperfection but as long as they are minor they won"t be noticeable when worn. Read more about pearl surface here.
Related to surface is luster, a poor surface will negatively impact the luster of a pearl. High luster is what all pearl buyers are looking for; a high quality pearl with high luster will be almost mirror like in appearance. A pearl's luster is what makes a pearl "pop" and stand out. Read more about pearl luster here.
Last but possibly most important is size and in the case of pearls, size matters. Traditionally a women will "earn the right" to wear larger pearls as she matures. A good rule of thumb is to choose pearls 7mm and larger for adult women and keep anything smaller reserved for young girls and teenagers. Read more about pearl size here.
All pearls sold in retail are cultured pearls unless specifically labeled as natural. Buy from reputable dealers, ideally one that specializes in pearls. And don't get hung up on brand names. Cartier, Tiffany's, and Mikomoto produce exquisite pearls but they by no means produce the only pearls. Shop around. And don't forget the Tooth Test- slide a pearl over your front tooth; if it feels smooth as a baby's bottom, it's a fake. Real pearls (and that includes cultured pearls) should feel a bit gritty. Real pearls will also feel cool when touched to the skin.
|Image via Carrots n Cake|
We'll go back to Pearl Magpie to learn some of the tricks that sellers sometimes use when selling pearls:
Setting three-quarter or half pearls into jewelry pieces and selling them as whole pearls. Fully round pearls are far more valuable than those that are semispherical.
Adding a lacquer coating to a pearl to increase it's luster. If you are suspicious about a shiny topcoat, try the "tooth test".
Using epoxy to fill pits and then coating the filling with pearlesence. (compare to body filler in a car repair)
Selling imitation pearls as real pearls. The simple tooth test should spot the difference. Pearls sold as "Majorica pearls", "Atlas Pearls," or "Kultured Pearls" are all imitation pearls.
Selling cultured pearls as natural pearls. Assume that all pearls are cultured pearls due to the scarcity of the natural pearl. Price, Provenance and an x-ray test result should backup a natural claim.
And FYI- natural pearls are sold be carat weight, cultured pearls by size in millimeters.
So once you have your pearls, take special care of them. Remember that pearls are organic. The nacre surface can be worn down by rubbing and chemical reactions with perfumes and other creams or lotions. Apply your "cosmetic chemicals" first, then adorn yourself with pearls. "Last on, first off" is a good maxim to keep in mind. Wipe your pearls with a soft lint-free cloth as soon as you remove them (if you use a damp cloth be sure to let the pearls dry completely before storing). You can use a mild detergent such a Ivory Flakes if your pearls are dirty (better to take them off before mud-wrestling) and never use harsh cleaners that contain ammonia or clean them in an ultrasonic cleaning machine. Perspiration will also harm your pearls, another reason to wipe them as soon as you take them off.
To avoid being scratched by your other jewelry, store pearls in the original box, a separate and dedicated compartment of you jewelry box, or in a soft pouch made of chamois or a nice flannel (anything non-abrasive, like you would swaddle a baby in). As with opals (oh I can't wait for October!) pearls will dehydrate if stored unworn for long periods. There is a saying that pearls want to be worn. OK, well, we would hate to disappoint a pearl so go ahead and adorn!
|Inage via Moon Rise|
OK, I know this post is getting long, but let's go pearl diving (which, by the way, we didn't even get to. Maybe another time).
|South Sea Golden Pearl|
|Chocolate Tahitian Pearl|
I know, chocolate, right?
|Empress Eugenia Pearl Tiara, commissioned by Napoleaon|
Oh my, another lovely tiara.
|Faceted pearl, a recent technique. Kari Pearls.|
Because pearls are so soft and not easily carved, they have been used mainly for jewelery and personal adornment, But not always. Case in point, this stunning canopy, circa 1865, adorned with 500,000 seed pearls as well as other gems.
|Both images via Reuters.|
|Image via Fashion Base Camp|
|Blue Heron Jewelry|
My humble little strand of pearls.
And it wouldn't be a birthstone post without a butterfly.
|Vintage Georgia Seed Pearl Brooch|
Image via NWWOne
But the truth be told, I have two priceless pearls that were given to me as a gift. I cherish them and guard them and hold them near to my heart. They are my most precious possesion.
I'm so sorry that this month's birthstone post is so late. Where did I get that crazy idea that when school let out for the summer there would be more time? Thanks for stopping by today.