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The World of Pearl Jewelry

Pearl Jewelry: How pearls are formed

A natural pearl is purely a product of luck and circumstance. It is also made by a living creature instead of like most gemstones which rely on environmental conditions of heat, pressure and the presence of the right minerals and metals. The pearl requires just a single grain of sand and an oyster.

When the sand or any kind of irritant gets inside the oyster shell, a defense mechanism is triggered. It shoots out a calcium carbonate material called nacre to envelope the irritant. As long as it remains inside the shell the oyster continues to attack it. Layer upon layer of nacre surround this irritant and a pearl is born. The size is determined by how long it has been in the oyster before it is discovered.

Nacre is also known as mother-of-pearl and it is that iridescent material coating the inside of the shell. This is why pearls, though white, pink or black colored, have an iridescent quality about them.

To make a pearl bracelet or necklace, it requires thousands upon thousands of pearls to find enough individual stones that match.

Pearl Jewelry: What is a "cultured" pearl?

Most pearl jewelry available today is made from cultured stones, a process first started in the early 20th Century. All this really means is that a pearl farmer doesn't wait for the sand to find its way inside the shell. He makes his own luck by implanting the irritant, usually a polished piece of shell, himself. The oyster then goes to work just like it would no matter how the irritant got there. Freshwater pearls are made using mollusks. These are recognizable by their puffed-rice shape and textured covering.

There are actually three individuals who had a hand in the culturing process that is used today. Independent of each other, Tokichi Mishikawa, a biologist, and Tatsuhei Mise, a carpenter, discovered that a foreign object could be introduced into the shell and it would form a pearl. They combined their research and patented it. Another individual, who is famous in the pearl and fine jewelry industry, Kokichi Mikimoto put his own spin on the process. Today, Mikimoto Pearls are well-known for their quality and beauty.

Supplies from natural beds have been pretty much exhausted making them rare and even more valuable. But, that doesn’t mean that cultured pearl earrings any less valuable or desired. They are still formed in the natural way, they are just given a little nudge.

The reason the culturing process came about was not just because there are too few natural beds to keep up with supply and demand, but also because the natural pearl supply has either been exhausted or depleted due to pollution of the water source.

Pearl Jewelry: Where are they farmed?

Because natural beds can't produce significant amounts, pearl farms are necessary to culture the world's supply of this classic gemstone. The most desirable cultured saltwater pearls are farmed off the coasts of Japan and China. Other saltwater suppliers include Australia and Polynesia. Japan, China, the U.S., Scotland, Ireland, Germany, France and Austria all contribute to the freshwater stones.

The farms are controlled to reduce the risk of pollution and disease from killing off the oysters and mollusks.

Pearl Jewelry: Special occasions for pearls

The pearl is the traditional birthstone and the Ayurvedic healing stone for June. On the mystical birthstone chart, it represents November. It is also designated as the official gemstone for the 30th wedding anniversary. Other traditional occasions to give a strand of pearls are a sweet sixteen, a college graduation and a wedding day.

Pearl Jewelry: Special care required

A pearl pendant and other pearl settings are very fragile. Despite the differences in formation, pearls are also rated on the Mohs scale of hardness with a rank of a mere 2.5 to 4.5. They are soft and the layers of nacre forming the pearl are vulnerable to scratching and chipping. This is why it is especially important to take care with pieces like a pearl ring or bracelet that are more apt to get knocked around during wear. Simply wipe down the pearls after wear and store away from heavier pieces of jewelry. Because the nacre is sensitive to harsh chemicals, be careful when applying perfume, hair spray and make-up. Put on pearl jewelry afterwords.

It is very important to maintain the string of a pearl necklace as well. Over the years, the silk string will wear down. To avoid losing all the stones, check the string regularly and take it to a jeweler for re-stringing when necessary.

Whether they are worn with an evening gown, power suit or jeans and a t-shirt, pearls are classic. If taken care of properly, they make meaningful heirlooms that are often passed down from a mother to a daughter on her wedding day. A keepsake she will always cherish.