YOUR SHOWCASE JEWELLERS GUIDE TO
The Showcase Guide to
the World of Pearls
The pearl is one of the ocean’s rarest treasures. Since ancient
times natural pearls have been used as jewellery and ornaments
and the oldest known pearl necklace is more than 4000 years
Pearls were often regarded as having a mystical quality and a
life of their own because of their unique glow that seems to
radiate from their very centre. In Roman times, women would
take pearls to bed in the belief that they would assist them to
have pleasant dreams.
So what exactly is a
It is an accident of nature. A natural pearl is produced when
a minute foreign object, perhaps a tiny living sea creature,
becomes stuck inside the shell and tissue of an oyster. When
the oyster cannot get rid of the ‘irritant’ it eases the discomfort
by coating it in ‘nacre’. Nacre is made up of microscopic
crystals; each crystal perfectly aligned with the others so that it
reflects light to produce a glow of light and colour.
The pearl is built up of layer upon layer of nacre. The more
layers, the more lustrous the pearl. However, because natural
pearls are so rare, they are expensive which is why ‘Cultured
Pearls’ are a more affordable option.
Giving nature a helping hand
Most pearls sold today are cultured pearls. These are pearls that
are made the same way as natural pearls in so far as an oyster
coats an ‘irritant’ with nacre. However the ‘irritant’ does not
find its way inside the oyster by accident. This ‘irritant’ that is
implanted is actually shell bead in salt water cultured pearls,
or, in the case of freshwater cultured pearls, a small piece of
tissue, which is implanted by a technician. These technologists
then supervise the process so that the oyster produces the best
pearl possible by ensuring it has the food it requires and that
the water temperature remains constant and free of pollutants.
Because there are a larger number of cultured pearls available
than natural pearls, it is easier to match pearls that are much
the same size and shape. So a necklace of cultured pearls will
be more even in shape and colour than one made up of natural
Imitation Pearls are exactly that
They are not real pearls. Both natural and cultured pearls are
produced by an oyster, however imitation pearls are manmade.
A round glass or plastic bead is simply coated in a pearly
substance. The best way to tell if a pearl is imitation or not is
to place it directly alongside a real one and compare the lustre.
The real pearl will have a depth of lustre that the imitation
cannot match. An imitation pearl generally will have a surface
shine but no inner glow. Also look in the shaded area, in
the real pearl you will see a clearly defined reflection, in the
imitation pearl you won’t.
Your Guide to
the Perfect Pearl
Whether a pearl is natural or cultured, there are five factors that
need to be looked at to determine its quality.
Lustre and Orient - A pearl’s ability to reflect and
refract light (lustre) creates an underlying play of colours within
the pearl (orient) which gives a pearl its unique inner glow.
The higher the lustre and orient the finer the pearl. The best
way to judge the lustre and the orient is to see how bright the
“reflections” are from the surface of the pearl (lustre), and to
see how the strong the “rainbow colours” are surrounding the
Colour - Colour is another important factor when
determining value. There are two elements when considering
colour: body colour and overtone. The ‘body colour’ refers to
the basic colour; white, yellow or black. The ‘overtone’ refers
to the slight tint that may be present. Very white pearls with
a rose-coloured tint are the rarest and most expensive. The
creamier the colour becomes the less costly they are. Cultured
pearls are available in many colours including gray,black, pink,
blue and gold.
Size - As it is more difficult for oysters to grow large pearls,
large pearls are more scarce and therefore more expensive.
However two pearls of the same size may be valued differently
because one may have a higher degree of lustre and orient than
Blemishes - How clean a pearl is depends on how free it
is from surface imperfections. Small blisters, spots and cracks
can all diminish a pearl’s worth. The cleaner the surface, the
Shape - The more symmetrical the shape, the more valuable
the pearl. Perfectly round pearls are extremely rare however
nicely proportioned round, oval and tear shaped pearls are all
highly valued. Irregularly shaped (baroque) pearls are less costly
but their unusual shape can make for quite a dramatic look.
Types of Pearls
Akoya - Grown in pearl saltwater oysters off
the coast of Japan and are one of the most familiar
types of cultured pearls. They have a lovely orient
and warm colour and rarely reach more than 9mm
Mabe - Large half-round cultured pearls that grow
against the inside shells of oysters rather than within
the body. Because of their hemispherical shape are
less expensive than regular round cultured pearls.
They are usually mounted in earrings, rings and
Freshwater - These are pearls that are cultivated in
mussels rather than oysters and are found in freshwater lakes
and rivers. Generally they have an elongated shape and a milky
Keshi - Small, irregular shaped seedless pearls that form
naturally in many cultured pearl oysters.
Freshwater Saltwater Akoya South Sea Tahitian
South Sea Pearls
Australian - Rare and valuable large cultured pearls
(10mm and larger) grown in the warm waters off the
Australian coast. Found in a variety of colours including white,
silver, gold, and rose.
Indonesian - Large cultured pearls (8mm and larger)
slightly smaller and creamier than their Australian counterparts.
Tahitian - Large gray to black cultured pearls (typically
8mm – 14mm) with overtones of reds, blues and greens.
How to care
for your Pearls
Cultured pearls are precious gems and need to be
treated as such.
• When storing them in a purse or jewel box place them in
a soft gem bag or wrap them in a silk cloth to protect
them from being scratched by harder stones, metal edges
or other jewellery.
• Don’t wear pearls in the shower, in the swimming pool
or while playing sport.
• Put your pearls on after you have applied your cosmetics,
hairspray and perfume.
• To help prevent discolouration wipe them frequently with
a damp, clean cloth.
• Never clean pearls with a harsh detergent or jewellery
cleaner. A drop of mild detergent in warm water should
be all you need.
• Restring pearl necklaces at least
once every two years to keep your
jewellery looking its best and
to keep your pearls secure.
• For further information, visit your
local Showcase Jeweller.
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