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Pearls: How they are formed and how to care for them

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Pearls: How they are formed and how to care for them



Pearls have long been prized as jewelry and bring the wearer a purity of heart and spirit. It is the birthstone for June. A pearl is produced inside a living oyster (mollusk) when a grain of sand gets inside and irritates its soft tissue. The oyster secretes calcium carbonate to coat the grain of sand so it will stop the irritation. This coating is called the “nacre.”  It continues to coat it with layer upon layer of nacre and, thus, forms a pearl. Oysters do this naturally and for centuries pearl divers dove to the ocean bottoms to bring up the oysters and to find pearls. Natural pearls like this are rare and random.  Mostly, nowadays you must buy antique pearls to find naturally formed pearls. 



In the early 1900’s people learned to insert a grain of sand into a mollusk to begin the pearl process and form a pearl. These are called cultured pearls and can be done systematically, over and over to produce millions of pearls that are more perfectly shaped and lustrous. Cultured pearls are no different from a naturally formed pearl. Saltwater pearls are of three varieties: Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian.

Akoya Pearls are some of the finest cultured pearls in the world. They mostly are farmed in Japan and China in seawater and they are usually white or cream in color. These pearls are smaller, less than 12 mm in size but are highly prized. Expect to pay good money for Akoya Pearls as they are considered the best of the best.

South Sea Pearls are some the largest pearls in the world. They come in shades of gold, pink, white and a silvery shade. These are gorgeous pearls with vibrant luster and glow.

Tahitian Pearls are the famous “black pearls” coming in shades of blackish-brown, greenish-black, and almost black. They are large and also extremely expensive.

Fresh water pearls are not formed in oysters (in sea water) but are formed in fresh waters like rivers, lakes and ponds by mussels. The nacre of the mussel gives it a softer luster than a cultured pearl and it tends to be a more durable pearl.

Pearls come in all shapes and sizes from round, to oval, to tear drop and can also be baroque with odd shapes and sizes.

The natural hues of a Freshwater pearl (many are dyed) come in soft pink, lavender, peach and white and can also be in very dramatic hues like peacock and even in black. Fresh water pearls are produced in great quantities and are reasonably affordable.

You can also find pearls made from Mother-of-Pearl. Mother of pearl is the nacre that has formed on the shell rather than around an irritant. They are of the same substance as any other kind of pearl but you will pay a lot less for them.

Additionally, there are man-made pearls on the market and glass pearls that are quite beautiful and affordable. Make sure you ask about the pearls you are about to buy. If the price is very low, they are either a low quality fresh water or a man-made or glass pearl.

Pearls are graded on their size, and their luster, They will receive a rating of AAA for almost perfectly formed pearls with high luster and no flaws – to A which will have less luster and even forming and visible flaws. South Sea and Tahitian Pearls are graded slightly different grading from A (the highest quality) to D (the lowest quality. Prior to buying, you can take this guide with you to make sure you know how to get the best buy for your money.

Pearls are softer than other gemstones and must be taken care of. They should never be hung as that will, over time, weaken the silk they are strung on. Curl them in a box by themselves because other gemstones could scratch them. They should be wet with a soft cloth dipped in clear, clean water and patted onto the gems from time to time. If you live in a very dry climate, do this more often. 

Do not wear pearls when cleaning as many cleaning agents can spot or damage, or even dissolve the pearl (as in the case of vinegar or ammonia). Put on your pearls after doing makeup and applying perfume to avoid damaging the luster of the pearls. Hairspray can also damage pearls so put on your pearls last.

The qualities of pearls are: they signify faith, charity, purity and innocence. They can enhance your personal integrity bringing sincerity to your interactions. Gold and black pearls (especially when not dyed) can bring prosperity. White and off-white pearls help more with purity and sincerity. Pink pearls open the heart and can help with love, friendship and forgiveness.

Written by Sandra Jeffs


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