Pearls in history
Diamonds are forever, but it is pearls that had been a highly estimated ornament long before people started to grind jewels. Pearls were present among crown jewels, in rich dresses of past time queens, legends about pirates, pearl-divers and treasure hunters. Fortunately the time when people collected pearls using inhumane methods are gone and now all pearls on the market come from pearl farms. Natural pearls are now only historical showpieces in museums.
Pearls do not have to be mined, grinded or cut. Their glittering beauty can be seen just after opening of the mussel. This is why they have become a symbol of purity and natural beauty. Greek mythology called them Aphrodite’s tears of joy, while ancient Egyptians believed they belonged to Isis – goddess of healing and life. Tribe Indians also believed that pearls were tears of gods. Ancient Arabic legends say about dew drops filled with moonlight, which fell into the ocean and got into oyster shells, where they turned to precious pearls. According to King James’ Bible, the Gate to Heaven is made of pearls. Pearls are also regarded to heal many illnesses. World literature, art and music have many references to pearls. We can see them on famous paitings as ornaments of dresses, heads, necks and ears of royal or noble persons.
In 1st century b.c. Julius Caesar restricted the right to wear pearl jewellery to Empire rulers. During the big time of the British Empire the right to wear pearls belonged only to the royal family. Not long ago only the most important and wealthy people in the world could afford pearl jewellery.
Some historical documents state that indigenous Americans approved pearl strands as payment for Manhattan Island. Several centuries later , in 1916, an outstanding French jeweller Jacques Cartier bought grounds there to set his first showroom in America. Price? A strand of natural pearls. All these stories and legends perfectly show the significance that incomparable pearls had for people. Today they are an irreplaceable gift showing good taste and subtlety.
Breeding and selection of pearls
The birth of a pearl is really a miraculous process. Unlike gemstones or precious metals, the pearls do not have to be mined from the earth but are grown by oysters below the sea surface. Gemstones must be cut and polished in order to bring out their beauty, pearls need no such treatment to reveal their loveliness. They grow and are born from oysters complete — with a glittering iridescence, lustre and soft inner glow like no other gem on earth.
A natural pearl begins its life as a foreign object, such as a tiny grain od sand or piece of shell that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster’s soft inner body. In order to ease this irritant, the oyster undertakes a defensive action in order to protect itself. The irritant is slowly being surrounded and shut in a smooth, hard crystalline substance. This is called “nacre.” As long as the irritant remains within its body, layer upon layer the oyster will continue to secrete nacre around it. Over time, the irritant is completely encased by the silky crystalline coatings. And the result, ultimately, is the lovely and lustrous gem – a pearl.
Why does something so wondrous emerge from an oyster’s way of protecting itself? Because the nacre is not just a soothing substance. It is composed of microscopic crystals of calcium carbonate, which are perfectly aligned with one another. As a result the light passing along the axis of one crystal is reflected and refracted by another and produces a rainbow of light and color.
Cultured pearls have the same properties as natural pearls. Oysters in farms form pearls in an almost identical methos as in the nature. The only difference is implanting the the irritant in the oyster by specialists, rather than leaving it to chance. Then the nature is let to create its miracle.
In early times, pearl cultivation was entirely based on wild oysters. Even now, in some cases, this method is applied. But modern pearl cultivation has become more selective.
The scientists have selected strains of oysters that proved to have the best pearl-producing qualities. These selectively-bred oysters produce pearls of exceptional lustre and color clarity.
In a process of nucleation, also called grafting or seeding, skilled specialists carefully open live pearl oysters. With surgical precision they make an incision in the oyster’s body. Then, they place a tiny piece of mantle tissue from another oyster and a small round piece of shell, or nacre beside the inserted tissue. The cells from the mantle tissue develop around the nucleus forming a sac, which closes and starts to secrete nacre that forms the pearl.
The nucleated oysters are then returned to sweet or salt water, where in sheltered bays rich in nutrients, they grow, covering the nuclei implanted within them by layers of lustrous nacre. At that time oysters are suspended in the water, and live in special baskets. Everyday the technicians check water temperature and feeding conditions at various depths. Periodically, they lift the oysters from the sea for cleaning and health treatments. Seaweed, barnacles and other seaborne organisms that might interfere with their feeding are removed from the oysters’ shells. The shells are also treated with medicinal compounds to discourage parasites.
After many months of growth, the oysters are ready for harvest. If everything has gone well and the natural proces was not disturbed, then after opening of the shell the beauty is revealed — the result is a lovely, shining and very precious cultured pearl.
Cultured pearls are nor a homogeniuos, mass product. The whimsical and unpredictable Mother Nature does not allow it. Every year millions of oysters are nucleated, but only a small percentage produce fine-quality cultured pearls. Many mussels don’t survive the nucleating process, others are too weak and fall prey to disease. Changes of environment, lack of oxygen or phytoplankton explosive growth can suffocate the oysters. Only 50 percent of nucleated oysters living in salt waters survive to bear pearls, and of them, only 20 percent bear pearls that are marketable. The rest are simply too imperfect, too flawed to be called jewels. But the can be used to make popular and cheap ornaments.
So, a perfect pearl is a truly rare masterpiece of Nature. Hardly 5 percent of nucleated oysters create pearls of perfect shape, lustre and color. These are the true treasures of any jewelry collection.
After harvesting, pearls of different quality must be selected and sorted. It is an extremely difficult and time-consuming effort performed by experts, because no two pearls are ever exactly alike. Each pearl must be classified by size, shape, color and lustre, so it is handled hundreds of times. After sorting, the pearls are drilled with great care and precision. It requires exceptional care and ability, because an inexperienced operator can split or ruin pearls with careless handling. A hole drilled even slightly off-center can ruin a necklace or other piece of jewelry that depends upon the symmetry of its assembly of pearls.
And finally, there is matching and stringing. This stage can be even more difficult than sorting, because now experts must compare and match pearls that are similar in size, shape, lustre and color — looking for a perfect result. The art of assembling pearls into a necklace, a pair of earrings or other jewelry requires refined skills in matching. Only highly-trained experts with years of experience can perform this task.
To find pearls for a perfectly matched 16-inch necklace, more than 10,000 pearls must culled through.
Evaluation of pearls
Proper evaluation of pearls is the most sophsticated and difficult aspect in choosing a piece of jewellery. Except Tahiti pearls, the export and grade of which is entirely controlled by the government of French Polynesia, there is no uniform, standarized system of pearl evaluation. For this reason it is highly recommended to become acquainted with the evaluation system approved by a company, where you plan to buy pearls. The key points in this evaluation are precise definitions of luster, surface, shape and colour parameters. Below we present the systems of evaluation we use in grading pearls in 3 separate tables (according to kinds of pearls).
All pearls, regardless their kind, are evaluated in respect of 7 aspects:
- Luster – pearls are prized for their luster. The brighter, sharper and more reflective a pearl is, the more valuable it will be.
- Shape– generally the more perfectly round in shape a pearl is, the more rare and prized it is, however many pearl connoisseurs enjoy the unique distinctiveness of baroque pearls. Baroques are off-round, drop and asymmetrical in shape, and are graded according to symmetry.
- Colour – While many prefer the classic white pearl, pearls come in every colour of the rainbow. Naturally coloured pearls like black Tahitian pearls or Golden South Sea pearls are graded on their colour’s depth and saturation- the more strongly coloured pearls will be more rare and valuable.
- Surface– Pearls that feature clean surfaces without inclusions like pin-pricks, scoring marks, chalky spots, wrinkles will be much more highly valued than pearls with multiple blemishes. However, because pearls are a product of nature, there will always be some form of blemish even if you can’t view them with the naked eye. This is why we will never call our pearls flawless.
- Size – Large pearls are rare in nature, so the bigger they are the more valuable they are.
- Natural or Cultured – 95% of all pearls on the market today are cultured pearls, meaning that humans played a role in pearl formation. Natural, wild pearls from the ocean are very rare and have a premium price.
- Weight – – the weight of a pearl is not always provided, however finer jewelers will include it among their descriptions, especially in the case of larger pearls. Pearls are usually measured in carats, grains, or momme. Cultured pearls are generally weighed in momme, and natural pearls in grains.
Pearls evaluation charts
Imagine a rosary-bead maker watching a fish being scaled in a basin of water. The water has colorful, pearly reflections which seem to form as the fish scales dissolve. The bead maker then gets the idea to filter the water, recover the pearly substance from it and mix it with a kind of varnish. Later he coats the inside surface of a hollow glass bead with the pearly mixture, fills the bead with wax, and what’s the result? The birth of the contemporary imitation pearl.
This occurred in France in the 17th century. Jacquin was the name of the rosary-bead maker. And essence of orient (or pearl essence) is the name of the pearly mixture he discovered. Today, the finest imitation pearls usually have several coats of essence of orient.
Even though pearl essence is used to make many of the best imitation pearls, such as Majorica pearls. Imitations come in a variety of types. The main ones are:
- Hollow glass beads containing wax. These pearls, made by the same process as Jacquin’s, are most likely to be found in antique jewelry.
- Solid glass beads. Majorica imitation pearls are an example of this type. They may be covered with as many as forty coats of pearl essence and hand polished between each coat. Imitation glass pearls are also coated with other substances such as synthetic pearl essence, plastic, cellulose and lacquer.
- Plastic beads. These may have the same type coatings as the glass type. Plastic imitation pearl necklaces sometimes hang poorly due to their light weight.
- Mother-of-pearl shell beads. These are coated with the same substances as plastic and glass imitations. A coating made from powdered mother of pearl and synthetic resin may also be used. One company calls such beads semi-cultured. This is just a misleading term for “imitation.” Powdered mother-of-pearl coatings are not new. Centuries ago, American Indians produced imitation pearls by applying such coatings to clay beads and then baking them.
Occasionally, people sell uncoated mother-of-pearl beads as pearls or they describe them as very valuable. In the Pacific Islands, you can buy mother-of-pearl shell bead necklaces from the natives for a couple of dollars. Some of the better ones cost more.
Simulated and faux pearls (the French term for fake pearls) are two other terms used to designate imitation pearls. These pearls can be distinguished from natural and cultured pearls with the following tests.
Tooth test: Rub the pearls lightly along the biting edge of your upper front teeth. If they feel gritty or sandy, it’s likely they are cultured or natural pearls. If they feel smooth, they are probably imitations.There are a few problems with this test. It’s not the most sanitary test. It may scratch the pearls, if done improperly. And it doesn’t always work. There are some imitation pearls that feel gritty. Also, accordingto the Fall 1991 issue of Gems & Gemology,real pearls may feel smooth. A cultured pearl sent to the GIA New York laboratory gave a smooth tooth test reaction because the surface had been polished. Therefore, don’t rely solely on the tooth test. If you use it, combine it with the magnification tests listed below..
Magnification test: Examine the surface of the pearl with a 10-power magnifier such as a loupe. If it looks grainy, like a photo taken at an ISO of 1000 and above, there’s a good chance it’s an imitation. Pearls normally look unusually fine grained. Sometimes, though, dirt or pits on a pearl may make it seem to have a grainy appearance. Occasionally, too, freshwater and South Sea pearls may look a little grainy, but other surface characteristics mentioned in this section can prove they are not imitation.
If you have access to a microscope, also examine the surface at the highest possible magnification. A surface with tiny, crooked lines giving it a scaly, maze-like appearance is characteristic of cultured and natural pearls. These scaly lines are not always evident at first. The surface may look smooth except for the flaws. Try using a strong, bare, direct light such as a fiber-optic; and shine it on the pearl from various angles to find the scaly lines. It’s curious that pearls, which feel gritty to the teeth, can look so smooth under high magnification; whereas imitations, which feel smooth, tend to look coarse and rough. However, the less smooth an imitation is, the rougher it looks. On pearls, it’s the “scaly-line” ridges that cause their gritty feel.
The best way to learn what the surface of pearls and imitations looks like under magnification is to examine many examples of each. When you can recognize how distinctive their surface textures are, you won’t need to do any of the other tests to spot an imitation pearl.
Protection and care
Pearls are an organic gem, so it is very important that they are properly taken care of to ensure they remain lustrous and beautiful for generations to come. It is important to remember that some cosmetics, sun block, perfume and hair spray all contain chemicals that can dramatically dull the luster of a pearl. The natural acids contained in body oils and perspiration can also damage pearls in the same way. It is best to put your pearls on at least 30 minutes after applying any personal care products, and to take your pearls off before getting ready for bed. A good rule of thumb to remember is that pearls should be the last things to put on and the first things to take off.
Wiping the pearls with a damp, soft cloth after you wear them will ensure that they remain free of harmful build-up of compounds that may damage the nacre of your pearls. Always keep your pearls separated from hard jewelry items such as rings or bracelets to prevent them from being scratched. Pearls are best kept in a soft-cloth pouch or a soft-lined jewelry box. Never store your pearls in an airtight environment such a a zip lock bag. Pearls are organic and do contain trace amounts of water. Storing them in an airtight environment will cause them to become brittle and damage the luster.
If you wear your pearls often, they should be strung about once a year to prevent strand breakage. We suggest the use of silk thread. However, nylon thread is an acceptable alternative. The thread should be knotted between each pearl to prevent all the pearls in a strand from falling off should a break occur. Knotting also prevents possible damage from the pearls rubbing against each other.
Sugerujemy użycie nici jedwabnych, chociaż można również użyć nici nylonowych. Najlepiej węzełkować nici między perłami, co zapobiega ich rozsypaniu się w przypadku rozerwania sznura. Węzełkowanie chroni również perły od uszkodzeń powodowanych przez tarcie jednej perły o drugą oraz nadaje naszyjnikowi miękkość pozwalającą mu się lepiej układać.