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Pearls Before Swine: Where Do Pearls Come From

Jul 20, 2008
If you're considering buying pearl jewelry have you ever thought about where exactly pearls come from? Pearls, beautiful, lustrous, glowing pearls. And to think it all started with a grain of sand.

The mollusk, that' s oyster to you and me, opens its shell to pass fresh water over its interior, get oxygen and snag tiny bits of food. Sometimes what it snags is a grain of sand or piece of shell. If the mollusk can't get rid of the bit of grit it begins to coat it with a substance it produces called nacre. Coating the grain of sand makes it less irritating. As time passes the grain is coated with many layers of nacre. Eventually you end up with a lustrous pearl.

Not all pearls are gem quality. The pearl can be lopsided, have an irregular surface, or the coloring of the pearl is grayish instead of white with a rosy pink cast. The luster of the pearl can be lacking as well and instead of glistening the surface is dull and flat. If the irregularity or flaw is only on one side and the pearl looks good otherwise it can be set in jewelry with the flaw at the back of the piece where it won't be noticed.

Pearls can be from fresh water or salt water mollusks. Salt water is more expensive. Pearls from fresh water mollusks are more varied in color in shades of pink, purple, yellow, and peach.

Colors range from white, yellow, pink, to gray. South Sea Pearls, sometimes called Tahitian pearls, are some of the most expensive pearls. They are larger, because the mollusk is larger, and the colors are iridescent black, purple, and dark gray as well as standard light pearl colors. The Tahitian black pearl is stunning as the rainbow flashes play off the dark pearl surface.

Natural pearls are very expensive and difficult to find in jewelry since the Japanese began culturing pearls. Cultured pearls are simply oysters in an oyster bed that has been seeded with a nucleus. The nucleus can be a bit of mother of pearl, a tiny seed pearl or a grain of sand.

Good cultured pearls have been left in the oyster over several years to build up layers of the pearl. Cheap cultured pearls start with a much bigger seed core and then are left in the oyster only long enough to gather a few layers. Those layers can easily wear off.

When you're looking to purchase pearl jewelry keep in mind that fine pearl jewelry requires that the pearls be matched on color and luster so they look like they belong together. Or the design of the piece should play off the different colors. Necklaces and bracelets can be strung with pearl of a uniform size, all approximately the same. Necklaces are often graduated with the larger pearls in front gradually reducing in size as the reach the back clasp.

The value of a pearl is based on 5 factors: cleanliness, shape, luster and orient, and color.
About the Author
Dee Power is the author of several nonfiction books and loves jewelry She also loves to garden, and uses many of the herbs she grows in grilling.
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