How Are Pearls Made?

We should first consider what pearls are?  Pearls are hard masses, usually round, that are formed within the shells of living molluscs.  Pearls are an incredibly unique gemstone.  While most precious gems are formed in the ground, surrounded by rocks, pearls are the only gemstone created inside a living creature.  Their lustrous appearance and smooth surface make them a popular addition to women’s jewellery and accessories.

There are essentially three types of pearls: natural, cultured and imitation.

A natural pearl, often called an oriental pearl, occurs naturally when an irritant works its way into a mollusc. As a defence mechanism, the mollusc secretes a fluid to coat the irritant.  Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed.

When pearls are cultured, the process is similar, the difference being, that the irritant is a surgically implanted bead or piece of shell called Mother of Pearl. Often, these shells are ground oyster shells that are worth significant amounts of money in their own right as irritant-catalysts for quality pearls. The resulting core is, therefore, much larger than in a natural pearl.  Yet, as long as there are enough layers of nacre (the secreted fluid covering the irritant) to result in a beautiful, gem-quality pearl, the size of the nucleus is of no consequence to beauty or durability.

Imitation pearls are quite a different process.  When producing an imitation pearl, a glass bead is dipped into a solution made from fish scales.  This coating is thin and may eventually wear or peel off.  This process produces pearls that are very uniform in shape and colour, far more so than can be achieved naturally.  This feature allows them to be more easily recognised as imitation as it is not always possible to culture pearls that are so perfect in shape and colour.

How to tell the difference between a natural or cultured pearl and an imitation? One can usually tell an imitation pearl by biting on it. Fake pearls glide across your teeth, while the layers of nacre on real pearls feel gritty.

Pearls can be found in many colours, however white and black are the most common colours.

There are 8 basic shapes used for making jewellery: round, ringed round, semi round, pear, drop, button baroque, oval and circle.  The perfectly round pearl is the most valuable as it is by far the most rare.  The value of a pearl is decided upon on by its physical merits as opposed to how it is made, or whether it is a sea or freshwater pearl.  Freshwater pearls appear to be more irregular in shape, but this factor alone is found to be very attractive by some.

How Are Pearls Made?

Featured are 6 of the basic shapes.

Regardless of the methods used to acquire a pearl, the process usually takes several years. Mussels must first reach a mature age, which can take up to 3 years.  They are then implanted or naturally receive an irritant. Once the irritant is lace, it can take up to 3 years for the pearl to reach its full size. Sometimes the irritant is rejected.  The pearl can be very misshapen, or the oyster may simply die from disease or countless other complications.  By the end of a 5 to 10 year cycle, up to 50% of the oysters will have died, and, of the pearls produced, only 5% are of a quality suitable for top jewellery makers.


Freshwater Pearls


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