Pearls bring to mind different images of elegance, like a bride on her wedding day or a classic Hollywood starlet. There’s a reason why these gems are a symbol of timeless beauty—they’ve been enchanting us for thousands of years. From ancient China to the Egyptians and Imperial Romans, pearls are one of the longest valued gems. Working with pearls in jewelry involves a number of things, such as knowing how to care for them, understanding color and being able to distinguish quality. Today, we’ll focus on the origins of the pearl.
How Pearls are Made
What exactly is a pearl? Well, first, there are freshwater pearls and saltwater pearls. Freshwater pearls are formed inside mussels and other mollusks found in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water. Most pearls you buy and the ones used in jewelry are tended by pearl farmers who use a cultivation process of placing mantle tissue (known as an irritant) inside the mollusk. The mollusk then begins to grow layers of nacre around it, forming the pearl over time. Freshwater pearls are more durable and most common in the jewelry market, which could be due to the fact that a mussel can produce up to 40 pearls. A saltwater pearl is produced in a similar way, except it occurs in tropical oceans and lagoons. These types of cultured pearls tend to be more round than their freshwater cousins because saltwater mollusks are rounded inside. The exception to this is a keishi pearl (free-form pearl). A Tahitian pearl is an example of a saltwater pearl.
Treat your pearls like little treasures because that’s essentially what they are! Each one begins as a tiny speck that slowly grows, patiently perfecting itself inside the safe haven of a mollusk.