I’m going to have to keep this very short and very brief as I could fill several books on the subject. I deal mainly with freshwater pearls, so that is mainly what I am going to concentrate on. Natural pearls were valued from ancient times as symbols of wealth and status and were found mainly in the Persian Gulf, the rivers of Europe (including Scotland!), the rivers and lakes of China and the waters around Sri Lanka. In the 15th century Christopher Columbus discovered pearls in the New World and this amplified European demand. These sources included both saltwater and freshwater pearls and demand remained strong until around the turn of the 20th century when a combination of the development of imitation pearls by Kokichi Mikimoto, and the development of the plastic button industry (yes really!) resulted in a decline. In 1908 oil was discovered in the Persian gulf and this quickly replaced the pearl industry as the region’s primary international industry and the industrialisation that followed this polluted and ruined the oyster beds.
For these reasons, most of the pearls that are on the market today are cultured. Because pearls have to be grown, and this takes time, there simply isn’t sufficient production to satisfy demand and so most pearls – even high end pearls such as South Sea and Akoya – are farmed, or cultured. This does not mean they are fake; simply that instead of waiting for them to grow naturally, they are deliberately grown in farms, adapting the process by which they grow naturally.
Pearls grow in molluscs; soft-bodied marine animals in two-part shells. As they are created by living organisms they are known as organic gems. A natural pearl forms when a foreign object somehow gets into the shell; a parasite might bore its way in, or a tiny piece of grit might slip into the shell when the animal opens its shell to feed. This foreign body is an irritant to the mollusc and so it tries to reduce this by coating it in nacre; turning it over and over and coating it in layer upon layer. Eventually this results in a pearl. Cultured pearls are made by simulating this process. South Sea pearls are usually created by inserting a bead into the mollusc; freshwater pearls by taking a piece of donor mollusc and inserting into a host mollusc. In fact, freshwater pearl culturing is so intensive that many pieces of donor mollusc may be inserted into a single host. This is a very delicate and skilled process as, if the host mollusc is killed, as is very easy to do, then obviously the pearl won’t grow.
Fast-grown pearls with a thin nacre layer are known as potato pearls. Recognisable for their non-round shapes, they often have rings around them and may not have very good lustre. These are usually pretty cheap. The longer the pearl takes to grow, the thicker the nacre, the rounder the pearl and the better the pearl.
Freshwater pearls are relatively inexpensive and plentiful these days that you don’t need to deal with imitation pearls for cost reasons but you might for other reasons, for example vegans or animal rights activists will likely object to the process of pearl culturing. Imitation pearls may be created from dipping beads into a liquid pearlescent substance – this may be entirely synthetic or made from crushed mollusc shells. Alternatively I often see shell pearls advertised and these are either formed from mollusc shells by carving, or by crushing and reforming the shells. You may also see Swarovski glass pearls, which are usually very clearly marked and marketed as imitation.
I do often get asked about how you tell natural from imitation pearls, and really it’s one of the easiest separations in my view. You just need a bit of magnification, and you will be able to see the overlapping layers of nacre. It’s really incredible and once you see it, you’ll never mistake it. A microscope is great, but you can see it with just a loupe. This picture below indicates exactly what you’ll see. There are still plenty of sources on the internet that advocate the tooth test – as in running the pearl across your teeth – a natural pearl is supposed to have more drag, a grittier feel, but pearl is so soft that this is a really good way of wrecking a pearl. Imitation pearls are also likely to be very round, very perfect, and completely uniform unlike cultured pearls which are organic, and therefore likely to have small pits, blemishes, slightly uneven shapes, subtle differences in colour and lustre and so on. It’s worth mentioning that just because cultured pearls are organically grown does not mean they are untreated. Most will naturally have dark patches and so all cultured pearls are bleached.
I do love classic pearls. They are beautiful and glowing, and flattering. However I am also really excited when I see pearls that are a bit different. That’s either in the style of pearl – for instance I love anything keshi or baroque – or in what has been done to the pearl. Because yes, sacre bleu! Sometimes pearls are cut, faceted or drilled to make something entirely unexpected. I became interested in this a couple of years back when I wondered if it were possible to facet pearls so that they could be rose cut (since I specialise in rose cuts). We had a go and the results, in my view, were awesome. I have these in a variety of sizes and you can find them in my pearls section here.
I’m not the only one; two designers that work with pearls in this way are Melanie Georgacopoulos and Motley. When I first saw Melanie Georgacopoulos’ (in her collaboration with Tasaki as the M/G Tasaki brand) sliced pearl necklace I was blown away. I just hadn’t seen anything as different and exciting as this in a long time. I love the way that you can see the concentric rings of nacre throughout the pearls. Just stunning.
Also in this category is Frances Wadworth-Jones who brings a playful and rebellious edge to pearls. In her collection for Motley she mounts them on gold and silver screws, challenging the classic and traditional. I love these.
To browse all of my pearls, click here