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Why Cultured Pearls Anyway?

Cultured Pearls and Their Natural Sisters

The whole reason for having cultured pearls in the first place is because natural pearls are so rare. Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and their likes would have worn natural pearls. These gems were created by a small irritant of some kind being caught in the mollusk. The mollusk would have been trying to rid itself of its aggravation and would have secreted the nacre over the top. Thus, creating a natural pearl. We must also keep in mind that the mollusk was doing all of this as it was surviving in the wild with all of its natural predators around it. If you’ve ever seen a natural pearl, you’ll notice that most often they are free form jewels, not round orbs.

Throughout history, man has always had a love affair with the glow of the pearl. Cultured pearls have long been the answer to the supply and lack of natural demand.

The first famous recording of cultured pearls dates back to 1916 when a British Biologist, William Saville-Kent, in Australia developed the accepted process of culturing pearls. His formula was introduced into Japan by a young man named Tokichi Nishikawa who was actually granted a patent on this process. It just so happens that Nishikawa ended up marrying the daughter of…you guessed it…Mikimoto and the rest is history.

The round pearl is often thought of as the ideal shape in this gem which is associated with the full moon. That’s why this culturing process involves taking an oyster and carefully implanting a round spherical bead nucleus made of mother of pearl and a piece of mantle tissue from a host mollusk. The oyster is then placed in a controlled natural saltwater environment and watched over carefully. This gives a better than average chance that the result will be a perfect round cultured pearl.

While this process sounds quite easy, it’s actually a true labor of love from both man and Mother Nature. Many people think that creating a cultured pearl is quick, but in reality, many adverse situations can happen during the growing process. Sometimes, farmers will lose their entire crop before even seeing a single gem.

First of all, the spat (or baby oyster) must be old enough (generally about 1-2 years old) and strong enough to survive the surgical procedure.

Second, once the spat is removed from the surgical area and placed into the farm area, the rest is up to Mother Nature and the actual oyster. Now, the wait is on for another 1-2 years.

Third, changes in the water conditions even by just 5 degrees warmer or colder can kill an entire crop.

Fourth, an unhealthy oyster can also make the whole crop bad. Have you heard of that saying "one bad apple spoils the whole barrel?" The same is true if a pearl farmer doesn’t clean his nets and watch over his pearl crop carefully. These challenges have nothing to do with man and everything to do with nature.

Lastly, this oyster is layering the lustrous nacre (or pearly part) over the mother of pearl bead nucleus basically coating the irritant to relieve its tummy ache. In doing so, it’s internally rotating the irritant. If it rotates too much or not enough, the results are blistered, blemished and off round pearls.

So you see, just because a pearl is cultured, doesn't mean that the course was smooth and easy. In fact, after the entire process of 3 to 4 years, only 20% of the pearls harvested are worth making jewelry out of and only 20% of that is worthy of the fine pearl status. Now, add to that the fact that you only get 1 pearl per oyster. It's the combination of the long process and the low yield that makes cultured pearls such treasures.

Cultured Pearls and the Many Varieties

There are basically 2 types of cultured pearls, saltwater and freshwater. But in those 2 types, there are many varieties.

Cultured pearls from the saltwater, those formed in a variety of oyster, are grown using the mother of pearl bead nucleus to make a general size, shape and form. Within this group are akoya pearls (or the classic round pearl we often think of), south sea pearls (this includes the Tahitian black, the south sea white, the south sea golden, south sea gray and even the rare Australian rose). These oysters will only yield 1 cultured pearl at a time.

Freshwater pearls are formed in mussels. They’re also referred to as sweet water pearls. The process to create these pearls is similar to the saltwater technique only there is no mother of pearl bead nucleus used and multiple pearls can be cultured at one time. This helps to keep the pearls more cost effective. In some instances today, a second generation can also be grown using the same mussel. Varieties within the freshwater cultured pearl group include the Biwa, rice, ovals, teardrops, pebbles, barrels and other free form shapes. Because no nucleus is used to give a predetermined size, shape or form, freshwater pearls tend to be a happy surprise whenever they are harvested.

Cultured Pearls and the Jewels They Create

Each type and each variety of cultured pearls can be used to create incredible jewelry. When you think of the cultured pearls from the saltwater, you instantly think of classic, white, pearl necklace or stud earrings. These timeless gems are also perfect for making the enduring rings and pendants both simple and embellished. Saltwater cultured pearls from the South Seas are used to create magnificent jewelry just because of the shear size of the pearls. Sometimes this variety of pearl can grow to be over 20mm in diameter. With that, one single pearl is all you need to make a huge statement.

Freshwater cultured pearls are gaining more favor within the design world because of their unique shapes. Consumers are becoming more attracted to this type as well not only because of the interesting shapes but also because of the price.

Cultured Pearls and How to Take Care of Them

Cultured pearls are ranked on the Mohs scale of hardness in a range of 2.5-4.5. The Mohs scale is a general comparison system used in the gemstone industry ranging from 1 to 10 with 10 being the hardest. So, as you can see, cultured pearls are closer to the softer side of gems. This doesn’t mean that your jewels can’t be worn often.

The best way to clean your pearl jewelry is to simply use a damp soft cloth. When wearing your pearl jewelry, keep this simple rule in mind…last on and first off. This just means when you are wearing hairspray, perfume and cosmetics, apply all of these first. After they have dried, put your jewelry on. Then, when you are through with your day, take your pearls off first. This will better ensure that chemicals won’t erode your lustrous gems.

If your pearl jewelry gets extremely dirty, a touch of gentle soap with clean water can be used. Make sure to rinse the surface thoroughly. If you feel you must, you can GENTLY brush the surface with a soft natural hair cosmetic brush. No professional ultra-sonic machine is ever needed. Always allow your jewelry to completely dry while laying on a flat surface. This will better ensure that nothing sticks to the surface while your pearls are wet and also that the silk thread between your gems on your necklace or bracelet doesn’t stretch. Occasionally, if you wear your pearl bracelet or necklace often, you’ll want to have them re-knotted by a professional.

Like with all fine jewelry, take care to keep from knocking the pearls around on hard surfaces. When storing your cultured pearls, remember they like to be in the same company or by themselves as other harder materials might scratch their shiny faces. With these few care tips, your pearls can be worn throughout your lifetime and then by the next generation.