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All About Pearls


Jewelry research and education about pearls


The term "pearl" is often used by the jewelry industry to mean many things. Technically speaking, a pearl is a stone-like creation that forms inside the shell of an oyster. When a piece of sand gets inside the oyster's shell, the animal secretes a mucus like substance (called "nacre") around the sand to prevent irritation. In sea water, this secretion will harden and form into a pearl. The longer it sits inside the oyster's shell the bigger it gets because the pearl itself becomes an irritation to the oyster and it continues to secrete the nacre. The process will continue as long as the oyster lives, with the pearl getting ever bigger and bigger. These pearls are called "natural pearls" or sometimes "South Sea pearls". About one in a hundred thousand natural pearls will come up black or grey. These are so rare that a matched eight millimeter sixteen inch necklace of them will sell in the range of one hundred thousand dollars!! And that is without the clasp!!


The demand for pearls as a fashion item is timeless and there are not enough oysters producing pearls in the wild, so today we have pearl farms where oysters are deliberately implanted with a piece of sand or shell to get the process moving along. Shell is often used as a nucleus because it's size can be regulated; if a larger nucleus such as a shell is used then the result will be a larger pearl more quickly. The pearls that come from these farms, mostly in China and Japan, are called "Cultured Pearls". They have a distinctive look about them and often the color is adjusted by adding chemicals to the sea water in which they live. Cultured pearls are usually round although ocassionally they may be dome shaped. A dome shaped pearl is called a "Mabe" (pronounced MA-BEE) pearl, these are more rare than the round ones and thus will command a higher price. Pearls can also form inside of certain species of clams that live in fresh water, these are appropriately called "Freshwater Pearls". The process is similar to cultured pearls except the producer is actually a clam, not an oyster, that is grown in fresh water (not sea water), the pearl itself is usually long and oval shaped and rarely has the same color configuration as a pearl formed in an oyster. Colors are also adjusted by adding chemicals to the water, although many freshwater pearls on the market today have been dyed after harvesting rather than colored during growth. Usually only the farmer knows which is which.


Simulated Pearls are pearls that are man-made. The process can vary but generally follows the same idea as the natural pearl only with Man controlling all the production. Simulated pearls are available in Shell, Glass, and Plastic based. The best ones are made with a Shell base, similar to the oyster process. A substance usually made of ground up fishscales and oils (called "hemage", pronounced HER-MA-GEE, hard "g") is applied to the base, allowed to dry, drilled, and then sold. The more hemage, the more expensive the simulated pearl. Majorca Pearls fall into the shell based category. Each layer, twenty nine in all, is applied by dipping the base into the hemage, allowing it to dry, polishing it by hand to remove bumps and blemishes, and repeating the process to build up the density and uniformity in color. The exact specific process and composition of the hemage is a closely guarded secret known only to the producers on the Isle of Majorca, Spain. Majorca Pearls are considered to be the finest simulated pearls made.


Glass Based pearls follow the same idea as Majorca pearls however the base is a milky glass bead that is usually dipped or sprayed with the hemage one or two times, dried, drilled, and then sold. Plastic Pearls have a base of a plastic bead and the color is applied by spraying, although in the "old days" they did use the dipping process which, for the price commanded in today's market, is too expensive to use now. So plastic pearls made today are spray painted and usually have only one layer of coloring. Often the coloring itself is some sort of paint, it is not hemage, and tends to easily peel off.


How can I tell a real pearl from an artificial pearl?
Here’s a traditional test—just rub the pearl gently across your teeth. A real pearl will feel gritty, but an artificial pearl will feel smooth and slippery. Remember, cultured pearls are real pearls, so they, too, will feel gritty


If you found this information useful, please link this page to your web site.  The url is below:


The Tahitian Black Pearl - Tahitian black pearls produced by the Pinctada Margaritifera oyster shell.  Educational information, pearl grading, production, locations, brief history, modern pearl farming, pearl care, Polynesian photos, pendants, earrings, rings, and oyster shells.  





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