AT A GLANCE
2.5 - 4.5
1st, 3rd, 12th
LEGEND & MYTH
Pearls are associated with love, wealth, wisdom and luck. To the ancient Romans, pearls were a status symbol that only the best families could afford. The early Greeks believed that pearls brought marital bliss and stopped young wives from crying. Pearls played a legendary role in the story of Antony and Cleopatra, when during a lavish banquet Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony that Egypt possessed more wealth than Rome. Anthony accepted the bet, but when Cleopatra crushed a large pearl and drank it in her wine, he had to admit defeat.
Europeans first began harvesting pearls when they colonised Central America. However, by the end of the 1800’s the natural pearl supplies were depleted and only the wealthy could afford them. Pearls finally became available to everybody in 1907, when a Japanese man called Kokichi Mikimoto patented pearl cultivation. Marilyn Monroe famously received a Mikimoto pearl necklace as a honeymoon gift from her second husband Joe DiMaggio in 1954. Since then, from Audrey Hepburn’s pearl choker in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Scarlett Johansson’s classic accessories, pearls continue to be a symbol of feminine style and sophistication.
Photo: Everett Collection
Pearls are "organic gems" formed inside mollusks, such as oysters, clams or mussels.
When a tiny object or grain of sand gets inside a mollusk's shell, a lustrous substance called nacre begins to form.
This slowly covers the irritating object, making it smooth and protecting soft internal tissues of the shellfish.
As the nacre layers grow, a pearl is born; this can take up to eight years.
Pearls can form naturally or be cultivated. Cultivated pearls are the result of deliberately inserting a small object inside a mollusk.
Pearls are fairly soft, only 2.5 - 4.5 on the Mohs Scale of gem hardness.
They can vary in color from white to pale pink, brown or black, depending on the species of shellfish and the type of water they live in.
The word "pearl" comes from the Latin "spherus", meaning sphere.
WHERE ON EARTH?
Pearls are harvested and cultivated in the Asia-Pacific region, including China, French Polynesia, Australia and Japan.
Historically, Japan is where pearl framing began and today the country continues to be renowned for the high quality of its cultivated fresh and saltwater pearls. Pearl culturing is ecologically sustainable and ethical, because it doesn’t interfere with delicate natural ecosystems.
BIRTHSTONE & ANNIVERSARY
Called “the queen of gems”, pearl is the birthstone for June, as well as for the star sign of Gemini. It’s the time-honoured gift given on 1st, 3rd, 12th and 30th wedding anniversaries. Pearls symbolise love and are said to bring fortune and wisdom to those whose birthstone it is, as well as joy and happiness to married couples.
Marilyn Monroe’s “Mikimoto necklace” is amongst the world’s most famous pieces of pearl jewellery. Marilyn’s second husband, baseball player Joe DiMaggio, purchased the necklace for her.
The necklace gets its name from the Japanese man who invented pearl culturing, Kokichi Mikimoto. Mikimoto himself sold the necklace to DiMaggio when the famous couple visited Japan during their honeymoon in 1954. The necklace is 16 inches long and made with 44 cultured pearls. Now the Mikimoto necklace is often shown at museum exhibitions around the world, last seen in the UK at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2013.
How to assess
quality and value?
For today’s consumer, cultivated pearls offer a high quality, ecologically sound option to pearls harvested from mollusks in their natural habitats.
Farmed freshwater pearls are generally more affordable than cultivated seawater pearls, because sea mollusks can only develop one pearl at a time, whereas freshwater shellfish can produce several.
However, there is no visible difference between the two and only their mineral compositions differ.
Regardless of the type or pearls you decide to buy, our gemmologist would always advise you to consider these seven quality factors: luster, surface quality, colour, nacre thickness, size, shape and finally, how matching these aspects are in jewellery that’s made with two or more pearls.
This is the most important quality of a pearl. Luster is the iridescence that makes a pearl beautiful and it simply refers to how a pearl reflects light. Luster differs across pearl types; some varieties reflect light brightly and others shimmer. However, a pearl should never appear dull.
"Surface characteristics" mean tiny imperfections seen on pearls, such as dents or scratches. All natural and cultivated pearls have some surface characteristics. However, if there are only few of these, or better yet, if they can be disguised by the pearl's drill-hole, they won't affect its value or longevity.
Nacre quality and luster go hand in hand. If you can see a pearl's nucleus or if the pearl is dull, this usually means the nacre is thin. The thicker the nacre, the more durable and valuable the pearl is.
Pearl color can vary greatly from one variety to another. White, cream and black pearls are the most traditional, but other colours like pink and brown are also very popular. A pearl's "orient", or its rainbow-like shimmer, can also affect and add value to its colour.
Although round pearls are the best known ones, pearls actually come in eight different shapes: round, semi-round, pear, button, drop, baroque, oval and circled. Perfectly round pearls and symmetrical drops are the most valuable.
In a string of pearls or in a pair of earrings, pearl colour should always match. Size, colour and shape may be mixed for creative effect.
Generally speaking, the larger the pearl, the higher its value.
NATURAL OR TREATED?
Good quality cultivated or natural pearls don’t need to be treated in any way. However, some pearls on the market are dyed, coated, bleached or irradiated. If you are buying pearl jewellery, our gemmologist always recommends investing in untreated cultivated pearls, rather than treated ones. Especially high quality cultivated freshwater pearls can be bought at a very affordable price, and if cared for properly they’ll give you long-lasting wear through generations without any need for treatments. To avoid being sold fake pearls, always buy yours from a trusted jeweller.
CARE AND CLEANING
Pearls are extremely sensitive to heat, humidity and chemicals, so you should handle, wear and store them with great care. Always put your pearls on after applying cosmetics, hairspray or perfume. Wipe them clean with a soft cloth after wearing, as sweat can cause damage. Never soak pearls in water. Clean them by stroking each pearl with a small, soft makeup brush that’s been dipped in water with a drop of shampoo added to it. Afterwards, wipe them clean with a barely damp soft cloth. If cleaning a pearl necklace in this way, always lay it flat to dry, so it doesn’t develop kinks. Check your pearl necklace’s string periodically and have it restrung at a jewellers if you spot any damage.