Pearls are one of nature’s most beautiful ambiguities. Made with a combination of inorganic and organic components, pearls are a product of an oyster’s immune system.
When an irritant is present in the body of an oyster or giant clam, for instance, the immune system of the oyster attacks the irritant by secreting a substance known as nacre or mother of pearl. Nacre has a natural play of color, like gemstones, and is continually produced by the oyster until the irritant becomes a pearl.
There are several kinds of pearls in the market today. The first one, which is the hardest to find, is the natural pearl or wild-caught pearl. These are pearls that are found in wild oysters in the ocean. The chances of finding wild pearls are small, so it takes a lot of persistence to find one.
Saltwater pearls are pearls collected from farmed oysters at sea. Pearl farms at sea exist in the Philippines, French Polynesia, and a handful of locations worldwide. These more extensive operations perform breeding and cultivation year-round until the farmed oysters can produce the required pearls.
There are also freshwater pearls. Freshwater pearl farming makes use of mussel species that thrive in lakes in rivers. The forerunners of pearl cultivation, the ancient Japanese, have created an entire tradition revolving around pearl farming.
Many of the ancient methods are still in use today.
And finally, we have cheap and viable commercial “shell pearls.” Shell pearls are made from actual nacre or mother of pearl, and they’re durable and beautiful.
What differentiates these from all the other pearls we have mentioned before is that these are made in factories and not in the bellies of oysters. They’re not made from pearls directly, but from nacre, which is found in the shell of oysters that produce pearls. And they continue to be popular as they are the cheapest pearls around and anyone can afford them.
The shape of Real Pearls
Since this organic gem cannot be faceted or made into cabochons, pearls are evaluated based on their natural shape and appearance. The rounder the pearl, the higher its designated value. The highest quality pearls include Akoya pearls and South Sea pearls that can easily fetch $15,000 or more in the jewelry market. These are high-end pearls that are in constant supply because of their quality.
There is a total of six kinds of pearls based on their shape: round, off-round, semi-baroque, baroque, button, oval, and drop. Let’s talk about these six shapes and how they differ from one another:
- Round pearls are the spherical and almost perfectly shaped pearls that most people recognize from TV and the movies. Round pearls are considered the classic choice for pearls, and thus, the value for rounder pearls in the market is always high.
- Off-round pearls – Off-round pearls feature slight elongation, and sometimes, they also have slightly flat tops. Despite these imperfections, off-round pearls still fall into the category of spherical pearls, and they can also fetch a high value when sold as a set or string of pearls.
- Oval pearls – Oval pearls can sit on their sides and are elongated toward the ends. These are called symmetrical pearls as well, and they’re a balanced type of pearls.
- Button pearls – This is a symmetrical pearl that is somewhat flattened in appearance. When flattening is of a higher degree, the spherical shape is overcome, and the pearl is classified as a button. Button pearls are excellent for making earrings because of their more extended appearance.
- Baroque pearls – Baroque pearls are irregular pearls with little symmetry. Freshwater oysters often produce baroque pearls, and the range of shapes can be extensive as ever. Some look like ocean waves, while others look like a ripe mango. Nature determines the shape of the pearl as it builds inside the oyster.
- Semi-baroque pearls – Semi-baroque is the term used to describe pearls that could have been round, off-round or oval, but have some asymmetrical characteristics or imbalances in their shape.
- Drop pearls – These are either pear-shaped or teardrop-shaped pearls of any variety (saltwater or freshwater). Drop pearls are symmetrical, and they can either be on the short side or long side. This shape is preferred for jewelry settings like drop earrings and bracelets.
Color of Real Pearls
Chinese freshwater pearls are often white in color and range from four to fourteen millimeters in size. 38% of Chinese freshwater pearls are baroque, with just two percent in the round or off-round category. The luster of white pearls ranges from good to excellent.
South Sea pearls are often neutral or cream in color. These cultured saltwater pearls grow from eight to twenty millimeters, and they are highly desirable for fine jewelry. The luster of cream pearls ranges from fair to excellent, depending on the sample. These pearls can also have a variety of exciting overtones, including blue, pink, and green.
Black-lipped mollusks can often produce a variety of pearl colors, including black pearls. Tahitian pearls are well-known for their lustrous black appearance. Tahitian pearls can also occur in gray and brown, with blue, green, and pink color overtones. Black pearls often have a good luster, with moderate spotting.
Chinese freshwater oysters can produce lighter color pearls like lavender pearls. Lavender pearls can be fair, good, or excellent in luster, and they may be lightly or moderately spotted.
Compared to Akoya pearls, the nacre quality of lavender pearls is always in the acceptable range. In contrast, some Akoya pearls may have lower quality nacre that will appear somewhat chalky appearance. When the nacre quality is low, the nucleus or center of the pearl will be visible when observed closely.
Does this devalue the pearl? It may, depending on the source of the pearls, and if you’re looking at higher-end pearls with some nucleus showing, the value may not go down at all because of the sourcing of the said pearls. Freshwater pearls may not always have this market advantage because of the relative abundance of freshwater pearls in the market.