Pearls have a unique place in the gemological world: they are the only gem that comes from a living creature. Also unlike other gemstones, pearls require no faceting or polishing. Perhaps best known for their luminous white and cream colors, pearls actually come in a wide variety of colors and form around a microscopic irritant (naturally occurring in natural pearls or deliberately inserted in cultured pearls) in the bodies of certain mollusks. Pearls are often associated with their most famous admirers including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn.
Types of Pearls
Originally, pearls were grown inside oysters without the aid of man. By the 17th century, however, nearly the entire natural pearl oyster population was depleted, which meant that pearls were only accessible to royalty or to the exceptionally rich. In 1893, however, Kokichi Mikimoto successfully cultivated the world's first perfectly round "cultured pearl". Since then, cultivated pearls have become the norm, though some pearls are still found in wild mollusks.
Freshwater Cultured Pearls
Freshwater cultured pearls are farmed in freshwater lakes and grown in mussels. These pearls can vary in shape from quite irregular to perfectly round, all within one shell. Freshwater pearls are naturally created in multiple colors, but freshwater pearl cultivators can also create a wide variety of colored pearls by dying them in colors including brown, pink, green, purple, and black.
Akoya Cultured Pearls
These saltwater cultured pearls are produced in both China and Japan. In general, saltwater pearls are more spherical and regular in shape than their freshwater counterparts, and Akoya pearls are typically found in color variations of white, rose, and cream.
Tahitian Cultured Pearls
Tahitian pearls are also saltwater pearls. In order for a pearl to be called "tahitian", it must have grown in the Pinctada Margaritifera Pearl Oyster. Tahitian pearls are known for their large size and rainbow of natural colors, ranging from pale gray to green, eggplant, bronze, and black.
South Sea Cultured Pearls
These saltwater pearls are grown in slender oysters as big as dinner plates. As their name indicates, they are found in the South Seas and also around the coast of Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Their color ranges from silver‐white to a spectacular gold.
Care and Cleaning of Pearls
Pearls, unique in the gem world for their organic origin, also have unique care and cleaning needs which are essential to maintaining their strength and luster. Their delicate nature makes pearls particularly susceptible to damage, but with the right care, they can last for generations.
These four care and cleaning tips should keep your pearls in excellent shape:
1. Avoid soaking your pearls in liquid or exposing them to heat. While you can wash them gently with mild soap and water then wipe them off carefully, you should never ultrasonic or steam clean your pearls or use any chemicals, abrasives, or solvents.
2. To avoid exposing your pearls to chemicals and oils, put on your makeup, hair product, perfume, etc before putting on any pearl jewelry. When you remove your pearls, wipe them carefully with a soft cloth to remove any traces of those substances.
3. Always store and carry pearls in a fabric bag or keep them wrapped in tissue. A pearl's surface is soft and can be easily scratched if tossed into a bag or kept tangled in a jewelry box with other, harder‐surfaced gemstones.
4. Have your pearls restrung around once a year. Cosmetics, perspiration, oils, and ordinary wear can all weaken and stretch the threads on which pearls are strung, so it's important to get those threads checked and maintained regularly. Make sure that your pearls are strung with a knot between each pearl, which will prevent any loss of pearls if the string should ever break.