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Essential Guide to Pearl Jewellery

  • By Julia Littlewood
  • Published 02/16/2012

Traditionally much sought after for their luxurious beauty,pearls are once again making a renewed comeback – they are listed amongst some of the hottest jewellery items predicted for 2012.

The following guide will describe the ins and outs of pearls, including their interesting origins.

History of Pearls

Pearls are the oldest recorded gems and were once considered to be the most valuable. They are the only gem to be made by a living animal and no two natural pearls are identical.

In previous ages, pearls were regarded as a symbol of the moon and it was believed they had magical powers to ward off evil and ensure good health. These delicate gems also symbolised purity and feminine charm, as well as being an indication of status in society.

Pearls in Ancient Times

As early as 3,500 BC, pearls were worn by Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. These gems grew in popularity until they reached their peak in the Roman era – Julius Ceasar was known for his love of pearls.

It is also recorded that as far back as 2,500 BC pearls were valued in the Chinese culture as gifts for royalty and as ornamentation for the higher ranks of society.

In Europe and England, pearls were highly fashionable as both personal adornments and for beautifully embroidered garments worn by kings and queens as well as by ordinary men and women.

In the ancient Americas, the Incas and Aztecs were renowned for their worship of pearls and the occupying Spaniards shipped them back to their homeland where they were highly prized. The native Americans also used these lustrous gems to decorate their clothing and to create beautiful pendants and armlets.

The Difference Between Natural and Cultured Pearls

Natural Pearls

Originally, divers would practise extensively to be able to hold their breath so that they could reach the oyster pearl supplies located under the ocean.

Natural pearls were fished in huge quantities in the 1800’s, to the degree that the world’s natural supply became critically low. This resulted in making natural pearls extremely rare, which in turn made them highly expensive and prized.

A further contributing factor to the rarity of natural pearls is that only one in approximately 10,000 oysters will produce a pearl. It also takes up to five years to produce a single tiny pearl of about 3mm in the wild, which will not always be of a high enough quality for the jewellery industry.

Cultured Pearls

While natural pearls are formed by a living oyster but occur in nature accidentally, cultured pearls are also grown in oysters but are cultivated in farms (using both salt water and fresh water methods) to control their growth and formation. This allows the pearl farmer to produce pearls of a consistently high quality and in vast quantities, thus making these gems affordable to society at large.

The process whereby a cultured pearl is created involves a nucleus (generally round in shape to form the finished pearl) is inserted into the soft tissue of a mollus (oyster). In the fresh water method a piece of mantle tissue is used as the nucleus, whereas the salt water process uses a mother of pearl nucleus.

The nucleus, when inserted, is nearly the same size as the finished pearl, so the final product will only have a thin layer of nacre (mother of pearl). Natural pearls in contrast are made mostly of nacre. Nevertheless, it is impossible to tell the difference between natural and cultured pearls without the use of an x-ray to study their internal structure.

Since the quality of a pearl’s nacre is what gives it its beauty, this is one of the main factors on which the value of pearls are calculated.

The production of cultured pearls have revolutionised the pearl industry as these supurb gems could then be made available not only in large quantities but also of a consistently high qaulity and size. This consistency allows the jeweller to create a reasonably affordable string of pearls of the exact same diameter, colour and shape. In contrast, it is extremely rare to find a string of natural pearls that measure the same size and shape – if available it would be extremely rare and expensive.


These days, pearls come in all shapes, colours and sizes because almost all that are used in jewellery are of the cultured variety. While they generally don’t contain as much nacre as thei natural counterparts, the cultured variety can still be thought of as natural because they are also grown in an oyster. In contrast, synthetic pearls can usually be instantly recognised as fake since they have a plastic lustre and feel a great deal lighter.

About the Author: Julia Littlewood is a stylist and jewellery designer.



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