An in-depth guide to buying pearls for absolute beginners
Through the ages, pearls have been considered a symbol of ethereal beauty for many civilizations. In Japanese legends, pearls were the tears of mermaids and nymphs. Half a world away, Greek mythology held that pearls came from the tears from the Greek gods, while Hindu legend held that pearls came from droplets from the moon.
Pearls create a feeling of classic elegance for the woman who wears a strand of these exquisite spheres. Pearls can be worn for any kind of event, from a casual date or a formal gathering. That explains why pearls are such a popular gift for many women.
How pearls are created
Pearls not only look naturally beautiful. The process in which natural pearls are made is also a wonder of nature.
Pearls are made when an irritant finds itself between the two shells of a pearl-producing oyster, which is a type of bivalve mollusk. Contrary to popular belief, the irritant that forms the core of a natural pearl is usually a parasite, rather than a grain of sand.
To defend itself against the irritant, the oyster mollusk secretes a fluid called nacre, which the oyster also uses to create its shell. Pronounced NAY-ker, nacre is actually a combination of the mineral aragonite, with layers of membrane-forming protein conchiolin. The oyster coats the irritant with layers of this nacre and over time, this nacre-covered irritant becomes a pearl.
Natural, cultured or imitation pearls
There are many types of pearls on the market today. Before investing in pearls, it’s a good idea to know the differences between these types so you can get the most out of your budget.
Natural pearls are the rarest among these types, and it is also the most expensive. These are the pearls that undergo the natural process, which can take up to several years to finish. Unfortunately, overfishing, pollution and climate change have devastated natural oyster beds, making natural pearls harder to find.
Cultured pearls, on the other hand, are grown and harvested from man-made or managed oyster beds. The key difference with cultured pearls is that the pearl production is instigated by the pearl farmers, who manually insert an irritant inside a mollusk. These pearls are real pearls, grown inside real oysters using the same process as natural pearls, but cultured pearls are less expensive and can be grown more efficiently.
Because of the popularity of pearls (and their relatively limited supplies), it comes as no surprise that imitation pearls are everywhere. They are easier to produce and less expensive than natural and cultured pearls. There are in fact a variety of ways to create imitation pearls, sometimes called simulated, artificial, costume, Bohemian, Roman or Mallorca pearls, including the following:
- Glass pearls are among the most common of imitation pearls and are made with a glass bead coated with a pearl-like solution. In some cases, the pearl-like solution is inserted inside a hollow glass bead.
- Cotton pearls are created with a compressed cotton core coated with a pearl-like solution, giving these imitation pearls a much lighter weight.
- Plastic pearls are among the cheapest to make, as they use a plastic bead at its core, which is then coated with a pearl-like solution.
- Roman pearls are similar to glass and plastic pearls but are formed around an alabaster core.
- Bohemian pearls are created from “mother of pearl,” the nacre that forms the insides of many mollusks, particularly when there is a protuberance of that mother of pearl. That protuberance is then polished to look like a real pearl.
- Shell pearls are similar to Bohemian pearls in that they are cut from the nacre of mollusk shells, then buffed and sometimes dyed to create imitation pearls.
- Mother-of-Pearl pearl also use the nacre from mollusk shells, but first crushes them into a powder, which are then reformulated and formed into round pearls.
Aside from natural or cultured, there are other properties to consider when buying a real pearl. Most of these properties are a matter of personal preferences.
For starters, pearl shoppers should remember that real pearls aren’t all white. Pearls actually come in a wide variety of color, ranging from delicate pastels and sophisticated dark hues. However, it is good to note that the rarer a color is for a natural pearl, the more expensive the pearl gets.
A pearl naturally creates an intense brilliance. This reflective quality is called luster. This is the most important property to consider when getting pearls. A pearl’s luster should be bright enough to showcase your reflection on it. The higher the intensity of its luster, the higher the pearl’s quality.
Pearls come in many sizes; depending on what type of pearl it is. Freshwater pearls tend to be smaller in size than their saltwater counterparts. Larger pearls will usually cost more because they are rarer to find. But, depending on what type of jewelry you’re getting, size does play an important role. Larger pearls will look better on necklaces as opposed to earrings. While smaller pearls are better suited for rings.
Contrary to popular belief, not all pearls come out as a perfect sphere. Depending on what type of pearl it is, pearls come in many different shapes. The more perfectly round the pearl, the more expensive it gets. That is why it isn’t uncommon to see pearl necklaces that are shaped differently.
Another issue about pearl shape is matching. Since pearls come out differently in size, it is difficult to create a jewelry piece with perfectly matched pearls. Some pieces might take years to finish. That is why shape can drastically change a pearl’s price, as well.
Types of pearls
The properties above tend to vary depending on the type of pearl. There are two main types of pearls to choose from: freshwater and saltwater.
Freshwater pearls are cultured in lakes, ponds, and rivers. Most of these pearls come from China. These pearls tend to come out in smaller sizes, and pastel colors. They also produce more uneven shapes. Because of these, freshwater pearls tend to be less expensive.
Saltwater pearls are cultured in the seas and oceans. These pearls can grow up 20 millimeters in size, and some of the largest pearls in the world are saltwater pearls. They tend to have a more brilliant luster and deep color than their freshwater counterparts; that is why prices for saltwater pearls are higher. Below are three of the more popular kinds of saltwater pearls.
- Akoya pearls can be found in China and Japan. They are mostly white and cream in color and are considered the most classic of the pearls. Their beautiful luster and spherical shape make them perfect for making strands. When you are thinking of the word ‘pearl,’ the picture that pops in your head will most probably be an Akoya pearl.
- South Sea pearls can be found in the waters of Australia, Indonesia, and Philippines, and they are well-known for their golden color. They also shine brilliantly, and they grow the largest in size.
- Tahitian pearls can be found in the French Polynesia and are considered the most valuable of pearls because of their rarity. Thus, they are the most expensive pearls in the market. Tahitian pearls are also called ‘black pearls’ because of their dark color, but they are actually different shades of grey with hints of blue and green.
Whatever type of pearl you are thinking of getting, it’s good to remember that pearls love to be worn. Storing pearls for long periods of time deplete their moisture levels and make them loose their luster. Wearing them often allows them their much-needed moisture from humidity and allows you to show off your beautiful piece of jewelry.
That is what makes pearl jewelry such a great investment. You can wear it as often as you like, and it is versatile enough for a huge number of different outfits. A strand of pearls is the perfect, minimalist accessory for every woman that wants to convey simple grace and timeless beauty. With proper care and constant use, a strand of pearls can last a long time and still look glamorously elegant.