While most gemstones are formed by the heat and pressure of the Earth's molten core, pearls are created in calm waters by a living gem factory — the oyster. What starts out as an irritating bit of sand trapped inside the oyster grows, layer upon layer, into one of the most luminous and lovely of all gems, treasured for more than 4,000 years as a symbol of purity, modesty and virtue.
Pearls are fashionable with daytime and evening wear. They are at home with a silk chemise or with jeans and a simple sweater. Without a doubt, pearls are one of the indispensable accessories in a jewelry box.
Kinds of Pearls
Nearly all pearls sold today are cultured pearls. This means that humans assist in the oyster's natural process by implanting a tiny irritant, or nucleus, in the oyster's tissue. These "mother oysters" are then treated to ideal pearl-growing conditions in pearl farms. Most of the world's pearl farms are in calm bays or coves in Japan.
There are 2 basic kinds of cultured pearls — saltwater and freshwater. Saltwater cultured pearls usually come from the Akoya pearl oyster. They take longer to develop and are more expensive than freshwater cultured pearls. Freshwater cultured pearls usually come from a freshwater mussel. Cultivated throughout eastern Asia, freshwater cultured pearls offer the beauty of saltwater cultured pearls at a more attractive price.
Pearl Qualities
Cultured pearls are sized in millimeters (25.4 mm equal one inch). Round pearls are measured by their diameter; oblong pearls are measured end to end.
Pearl shapes range from perfectly round to oblong. Perfectly round pearls are the most expensive. Pearls with no definable shape are called baroque. Although less costly, baroque pearls are also beautiful.
Saltwater and freshwater pearls come in shades of white, gray and black.
Saltwater and freshwater pearls come in shades of white, gray and black.
Luster is the deep-seated glow that distinguishes pearls from other gems. Luster and size are the most important qualities in determining the value of a pearl.
Necklace Styles
There are 2 basic pearl necklace styles. One, called a uniform necklace, is strung with pearls of nearly equal size. The second, known as a graduated necklace, features pearls of gradually increasing size, with the smallest pearls near the clasp and the largest at the center. Uniform and graduated necklaces come in different lengths and have specific names:
Choker: 14 to 16 inches long
Princess: 17 to 19 inches long
Matinee: 20 to 24 inches long
Opera: 28 to 34 inches long
Rope: 45 inches and longer