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Paul Carruthers Manufacturing Jewellers stock a wide selection of both loose pearls and pearl jewellery.

Understanding Pearls

The key to understanding natural pearls is to know the differences in the “mother shell” or the “host oyster” which produces the pearl. Not all pearls are born equal, hence the wide variation in appearance and value of both natural and cultured pearls.

The world’s oceans contain many oysters, most of which can grow a pearl in some form.Assorted Pearls Most relatively abundant oysters have no commercial value in a pearling sense because they produce neither mother-of-pearl, nor pearls of significant value. Pearls produced by these oysters are common and inexpensive.

However, Mother-of-pearl shells are one of nature’s true mysteries. In the depths of the ocean the shells, horny and brown on the outside, are lined inside with thick layers of mother-of-pearl nacre of peerless, iridescent beauty.

More intriguingly, they isolate any intruder by secreting it with concentric layers of nacre to produce a pearl, one of the most magnificent objects known to man.

These mother-of-pearl oysters are members of the “Pinctada” family and are responsible for almost all of the world’s great natural pearls. Only two are truly valuable for their nacre.

The rarest, largest and most valuable is the giant Silver and Gold lip Pinctada maxima from the South Seas and the smaller and more abundant Black lip Pinctada Margaritifera from Tahiti and other tropical oceans. These species supplied the world in days gone by with the most valuable natural pearls, however today, they are used to produce the world’s finest cultured pearls.

South Sea Cultured Pearls

From the 1800s, Australia was the primary source of the world’s most valuable natural pearl – the South Sea pearl – product of the world’s largest pearl producing oyster, the Pinctada maxima.

In the 1950s pearling masters turned their hands from diving for natural pearls to pearl culture. The Australians knew their pearls would be highly sought after, should they successfully coax the Pinctada maxima into yielding a cultured pearl.

Their efforts led to Australia pioneering the cultured South Sea pearl. Only cultured pearls from the Pinctada maxima possess the beautiful transparency and colour overtone known as “orient”, with rainbow hues which can range from white pink, to silver pink, through to dark gold to the extremely and highly regarded red-gold.

Originally exclusive to Australia, South Sea Pearls are now also farmed in Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines. However the characteristics and quality of pearls from these regions can vary greatly.

Australian oysters and ocean conditions are generally credited with producing the highest quality, largest pearls as remote pristine waters are a must for successful pearl culture, for the native Pinctada Maxima shell which craves isolation and minimal disturbance.

What sets South Sea pearls apart and we find alluring is the unique beauty of their nacre. As with natural South Sea pearls, it is the quality and thickness of the beautiful opalescent nacre that gives the pearls incredible luster that will last for generations.

South Sea pearls require no cutting to reveal their natural beauty. However, it is this inability to enhance pearls that adds to their rarity.

No two pearls are exactly the same making a pair of matched pearls a rare gift and a full strand a truly unique masterpiece of natural beauty.

Most South Sea pearls are characterised by a distinctive shape adding to its individuality. Like a birthmark virtually all pearls feature a natural imperfection which sets that pearl apart from others, and given the precious nature of the pearls should be regarded as part of its character rather than a flaw.

Similarly, very few pearls are perfect spheres and are more commonly off round to baroque in shape.

Black Tahitian Pearls

Black PearlsThroughout history, the Black lip Pinctade Margaritifera oyster has been highly sought after for the beauty of its black mother of pearl shell. The black pearl industry began in Tahiti, where the finest examples of Pinctada margaritifera were thought to grow.

However, due to the abundant shell stocks throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the industry has spread to other areas including French Polynesia, Cook Islands and North Australia.

Pictada margaritifera produces the world’s finest and largest black natural pearls, their nacre displaying wonderful “peacock” greens and other exotic colours. Nacre quality, as is the case with white South Sea pearls, is the defining element in a top quality Tahitian black pearl. Tahitian pearls generally range from 8-13mm.

Shapes are similar to white South Sea pearls, from rounds and drops to circles and baroques. Similarly the quality of pearls varies from farmer to farmer. The value of Tahitian pearls is significantly less than high quality South Sea pearls.

Cultured Half-Pearl “Mabe”

Otherwise known as “mabe” or “cultured blisters”, the cultured half-pearl form on the inside lip of the host shell.

Initiated by a hemispherical nucleus, attached in the inside of the shell, the half-pearl grows into a domed blister as the shell secretes pearl nacre in its normal process of shell growth.

At the end of the growing period, the blister is removed from the shell and then backed with mother of pearl.

Australian South Sea Keshi Pearl

“Keshi” is a Japanese term which relates to “small” pearls. They can be either natural or cultured. Natural keshi pearls are those small pearls found, previously untouch by human hands, in wild shells.

Cultured keshi pearls are found in shells at pearl farms. The farming process occasionally stimulates a shell to produce a small pearl rather than a cultured pearl as intended by the pearl farmer.

It is impossible to distinguish between natural and cultured keshi pearls as they are identical in form and construction. Generally ranging in size from 2mm to 10mm, keshi pearls are quite rare.

Akoya Pearls

The Akoya (Pinctada fucata martensii) is one of those abundant oysters whose shell traditionally had no value, but occasionally produced small, fine natural pearls.

Kokichi Mikimoto from Japan pioneered pearl culture technology resulting in the first cultured Akoya pearls on the world market. Mikimoto’s original techniques required the Akoya oyster be farmed four to five years to deposit sufficient nacre to form a pearl averaging 3-6mm.

Pearl shapes and colours varied greatly. Unfortunately industrial pollution in Japans seas meant that from 1960s the Akoya could no longer survive so long in the polluted ocean. Culturing time had to be reduced and the way to achieve pearl quality shifted from nacre thickness to artificial enhancements, bleaching and colour dyeing.

As a consequence, the appearance of todays Akoya pearl is possibly more desirable to the consumer. It can now be produced in larger sizes, and colour and luster are bright. Colours range from cream to blue, with the best quality pearls being dyed white-pink. The downside is that artificial pearl enhancements are only temporary.

You may notice a gradual reduction of pearl luster and colour after two to three years. Akoya shells can support the growth of up to five pearls at once in each shell, but the pearls are less valuable than South Sea and Tahitian pearls.

Freshwater Pearls

China produces 90 percent of the world’s freshwater pearls which are farmed in varieties of freshwater mussels. Each shell can produce up to 100 pearls simultaneously. Most cultured freshwater pearls grow irregularly shaped, to between 2-5mm. China now produces round white freshwater pearls up to 9.5mm that compete with Akoya pearls.

As with Akoya pearls, freshwater pearls are not marketable for jewellery in their natural state, and require artificial enhancements such as bleaching, colouring and polishing. Lustre and colour can diminish relatively quickly. Supply is plentiful and quality highly variable. Consequently the price of freshwater pearls is much lower than cultured pearls.

Need to know more?

Understandably, choosing the right type of pearl can be a tricky decision, so please feel free to contact us if you’d like to have a chat about what sort of pearls could be right for you.