"The pearl is the queen of gems and the gem of queens."
No grit, no pearl
While pearls have widely symbolized wealth, wisdom and purity across cultures, I am particularly drawn to the notion of the pearl as a symbol of transcending hardship. In Michael Gienger's book, "Healing Crystals," he states that the spiritual power of the pearl is to help transform grief, loss and pain. Considering that a pearl is formed as a defence against injury, this aligns with our understanding of being able to overcome and transform our own struggles. As Oprah said, "Turn your wounds into wisdom."
The term "pearls of wisdom", found in common usage for hundreds of years, originated at a time before pearl cultivation was common, when pearls were extremely rare & precious. The term refers to revering wisdom as a rare and precious thing, and I believe we can add the notion of hard-won to this meaning. The wisdom that comes from overcoming adversity.
How is a pearl created?
A pearl is created from multiple layers of nacre formed within mollusc shells, usually built up over top of an irritant. Over 90% of pearls found on the market today are cultured pearls as natural pearls harvested from the wild are very rare and extremely expensive.
Pearls are one of the few organic gemstones (and actually not a stone at all). Along with amber, coral and ammolite, organic gemstones are materials created by living organisms or their fossilized remains.
What are cultured pearls?
Cultured pearls are created in controlled environments by specialists. A tiny nucleus (such as a piece of shell) is inserted into a mollusc shell, and over time, the mollusc builds layers of nacre overtop of the irritant until a pearl is formed.
Freshwater vs. Saltwater pearls
Freshwater pearls are cultured in freshwater environments by molluscs such as mussels. This cultivation occurs mainly in China but also on a more limited scale in Japan and the US.
Saltwater pearls, including Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea Pearls, are cultured in saltwater environments by oysters. This cultivation occurs in Japan, Tahiti, Australia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Cultured freshwater pearls are generally much less expensive than saltwater pearls and can be created in a wide array of shapes such as button and coin pearls (two of our personal favourites!).
Pearls come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the smallest Akoya seed pearls are only 1mm in diameter while one of the largest pearls ever discovered (called the Hope Pearl) is a whopping 2 inches long!
There's a lot of pearl terminology and it can get a bit confusing, so here's a list of definitions for some of our favourites pearl shapes & a few other useful terms.
A pearl shape that isn't perfectly round. Baroque pearls have beautifully irregular, organic shapes that are celebrated for their uniqueness.
A type of freshwater pearl originally cultivated in Lake Biwa, Japan by the father of modern pearl cultivation, Kokichi Mikimoto. Over time, Lake Biwa became too polluted to cultivate pearls and the term "biwa pearl" has now come to refer more to the long, stick-like shape, rather than the geographical location. These are a non-nucleated pearl, meaning that they are composed entirely of nacre and thus are more durable and have a more exceptional lustre. Being non-spherical, these pearls are also considered baroque.
A pearl that is shaped sort of like a button: flat on the bottom, round on the top and curved on the sides. It looks as if the bottom quarter was cut off of a spherical shape.
A pearl that is shaped like a rounded disc: round but flattened on the sides. These pearls are cultured with a flat or coin shaped nucleus resulting in a pleasing coin shape.
Derived from the Latin word lux, meaning light, lustre refers to the quality of light reflected back from a pearl's surface. Light travels through translucent layers of nacre and is reflected back to the eye creating a beautiful glow. Lustre quality varies from pearl to pearl.
Keshi pearls are interesting because they occur generally as by-products of pearl cultivation. While most cultured pearls have a nucleus (usually a piece of shell to initiate pearl formation), keshi pearls do not. They were originally discovered after a mollusc rejected the nucleus but formed a pearl anyway. Because keshi pearls have no nucleus, they are composed entirely of nacre and have an excellent lustre. These pearls are a type of baroque pearl, with a variety of beautifully non-spherical shapes.
Also known as a "blister pearl", these are half-pearls cultured on the inside of the pteria penguin oyster shell. Valued for their larger size and gorgeous nacre, mabe pearls make great statement jewellery. Cultivation of mabe pearls take 2-3 years. This saltwater cultivation occurs in Japan, Australia, Indonesia and French Polynesia.
Also known as mother of pearl, nacre is the beautiful, translucent, iridescent material that forms inside a mollusc shell. The mollusc builds up layers of organic & inorganic materials overtop of a particle of foreign material, like a grain of sand or piece of shell. Over time, nacre builds up in thousands of overlapping layers creating a pearl.
Caring for your pearl jewellery
Pearls rate a 2.5-4.5 hardness on the Mohs scale (a measure of the hardness of gemstones rated from 1-10: a diamond is a 10 and talc is a 1).
This means that pearls are relatively soft and easily scratched as gemstones go, so extra love and care is required to take care of your pearl jewellery. Pearls are also sensitive to acids, sweat, make-up and hair products.
Here's a quick few steps to keep your pearls in great shape:
1) Last on, first off. As we recommend with all your jewellery, put your pearls on after applying any perfumes, cosmetics or hair spray. And when you are ready to end your day, take your pearls off first.
2) Wipe your pearls with a soft cloth after wear. This will remove any oils or substances you don't want lingering on your pearls in storage. Use a damp, soft cloth to clean your pearls if necessary. A solution of lukewarm water and mild dish soap will remove any foreign materials.
3) Wear your pearls often! Pearls don't like to get dried out so take them out of storage and wear them!
4) Clean the silver or gold around your pearl with a soft polishing cloth, being mindful not to rub these cloths over the pearls as they contain mild abrasives.
Now that you know more about the history, symbolism, terminology and care of your pearls you might be wondering, how do I know if my pearl is genuine?
Real vs. Fake Pearls
As we've learned, real pearls are an organic gemstone created from multiple layers of nacre formed within mollusc shells, usually built up over top of an irritant. When we say 'real' pearls, we are referring to naturally occurring or cultured pearls. Fake pearls on the other hand are human-made beads generally fabricated from glass, plastic or shell. While there's absolutely nothing wrong with liking and wearing imitation pearls, it's still good to be able to tell the difference.
Here's a few ways you can tell the difference:
1) The classic tooth test
Rub the pearl in question against the front of your tooth (not the biting edge as that can scratch your pearl). It should feel a little gritty. Imitation pearls will generally feel smooth or glassy as they lack the textured surface created by the layers of nacre on real pearls.
Real pearls will always have tiny irregularities in shape and surface texture. Even with very high grade pearls, there will be imperfections and ridges on the surface. "Perfection", or in this case extreme uniformity, is usually a giveaway that the pearls in question are machine created.
Again, real pearls are rarely perfectly round or perfectly matched. If your pearls are baroque in shape, an exact shape match is very unlikely. Real round pearls will rarely, if ever, be perfectly spherical, even in very high grade pearls. If your round pearls are identical, this is a sign they are likely manufactured.
This method of determining real vs. fake pearls is a little trickier. Real pearls will feel cold at first touch. Plastic, imitation pearls will not. They will feel the same as room temperature. This method of detection is tricky however, because glass pearls will also feel cool at first touch.
Here at Mikel Grant Jewellery we only use cultured fresh & saltwater pearls. We don't sell imitation pearls.
"We're all born naked, and the rest is drag."
As our culture evolves and fashion is not so strictly dictated along gender lines we are seeing more men wearing pearls; Harry Styles, Usher and Pharrell Williams all seen recently rocking pearl jewellery. How fitting, as kings wore ropes of pearls as a symbol of wealth in ancient times.
"The world is your oyster. It's up to you to find the pearls."