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From Mikimoto to Honora: The Pure Perfection of Pearls

By Nina Glaser February 17, 2015

Pearls are some of the oldest gems on the planet have been objects of beauty for centuries…and are still sought-after. They have been called “the queen of gems,” associated with wealth, royalty, elegance and glamour across milennia and cultures.

There is no other gem in the world produced by a living animal that needs no cutting or polishing

As described in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the pearl is: “A dense variously colored and usually lustrous concretion formed by concentric layers of nacre as an abnormal growth within the shell of some mollusks and used as a gem.”

Biologically speaking, almost any shelled mollusk can produce some type of pearl, under the right set of circumstances). The largest pearl known was found in the Philippines in 1934. The naturally occurring, non-nacreous pearl – the Pearl of Lao Tzu – came from a giant clam.


Pearls’ place in history – both world and political – is strong:

  • The ancient Egyptians prized pearls so much that they were buried with them. They, along with the Romans prized pearls above all other gems.
  • “Pearl fever” reached its peak at the height of the Roman Empire. The pearl featured prominently in Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer’s most famous painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (1665), also the title of a New York Times bestselling novel by Tracy Chevalier that was translated into 39 languages and made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Scarlett Johanson and Colin Firth.
  • The most influential U.S. First ladies – from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who said “Pearls are always appropriate,” to Michelle Obama – have worn pearls (just take a look at some of the official portraits!).

And, one of the world’s most famous pearls – “La Peregrina” (Spanish for “the Pilgrim” or “the Wanderer” – has a nearly 500-year history. Found at Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama by an African slave, it was passed to European kings and queens…and actress Elizabeth Taylor. The original weight of the largest, perfectly symmetrical pear-shaped pearl was 55.95 carats.

Before the 1900s, natural pearls were reserved almost exclusively for the noble and very rich. While their timelessness and elegance have remained, they are available to the mainstream market…lucky for us! The fact is, more pearls are being produced now than at any other time in history. The primary objective for pearl harvesting and cultivation is for use in jewelry (the gems have also been crushed into cosmetics, medicine and paint formulations).

There are two categories of pearl: natural or cultured. Both are formed when a foreign object enters a mussel or oyster, coating it with nacre. Over time, the layers of nacre form what we know as a pearl. The difference between the two is that with natural pearls, the process is organic; in cultured pearls the foreign object is introduced by man.

The unique luster of pearls is dependent upon the reflection (image), refraction (bending) and diffraction (defusing) of light from the translucent layers. The thinner and more numerous the layers in the pearl, the finer the luster. A pearl’s iridescence is the result of the overlapping of successive layers, which breaks up light falling on the surface.

Freshwater pearls – natural or cultured – form in fresh water (lakes, rivers, ponds) growing in mussels. They are very durable, and tend to be smaller and less symmetrical in shape.

Saltwater pearls – natural or cultured – are grown in salt water (oceans, protected lagoons, volcanic atolls) and always in oysters. There are three cultured varieties:

  1. Akoya – the most popular “classic,” these pearls are widely believed to have the highest luster of all cultured pearls. Originally farmed in Japan, today’s Akoya pearls are mainly from China. Lustrous and round in shape, they range in size from 3-10mm and are generally used in strands. Their coloration goes from white to cream, pink or blue-grey.
  2. South Seas – rare and beautiful, these pearls are chiefly from Australia, the Philippines and Indonesia. They are large: 9-20mm, with a fine luster and unusual hues ranging from white to silver and gold.
  3. Tahitian – these pearls are found in and around French Polynesia. They are also referred to as “black” pearls, for the large black-lip oysters found there. Their nuanced colors range from dark purple to green and black. They are regal, and exceptionally lustrous.It is interesting to note that the first black cultured pearl farm was not in Tahiti, but was established on Okinawa Island by Mikimoto in 1914. Let's wish this authority on the highest quality black South Seas cultured pearls a happy 100th anniversary!

Luster is the most important differentiator among color, size, lack of surface flaw and symmetry appropriate for the type of pearl under consideration when buying pearl jewelry, which includes earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings.

Stringing Pearls Strands of Pearls are held together with soft silk thread.

There are eight basic shapes of pearls, including: round; semi-round; button; drop; pear; oval; baroque (misshapen); and circled. A special vocabulary describes the length of pearl necklaces. A collar is 10”-13” and sits directly against the throat. It may be made up of multiple strands of pearls. A choker measures 14”-16”, nestling just above the base of the neck. The Princess length is from 17”-19” and comes down to or just above the collarbone. A Matinee length measures 20”-24”, falling just above the breasts. An Opera length is 28”-35” and is long enough to reach the wearer’s sternum or breastbone. The word Pearl Rope is used to describe a necklace more than 45” long and any length in excess of an Opera length.

Additionally, necklaces may be uniform – created with pearls classified as the same size or falling in a range – or graduated, having at least 3mm differentiation from the pearls at the ends of the necklace to those at its center.

Pearls require special care. Here are a few things to remember; do’s and don’ts

  • Put on pearls after applying make-up, perfume or hairspray
  • Have pearls restrung every two-to-three years
  • Store pearls apart from your other jewelry to discourage scratching
  • Avoid soaps, detergents and ammonia
  • Gold and silver cleaning solutions, steam cleaning or ultrasonic jewelry cleaners should never be used
Posted in: Jewelry Education
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