Jewelry & Watches

Everything You Need to Know About Pearls

We take a closer look at this fascinating gem, from the types of pearls to how they're valued.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, JEWELMER
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The pearl is a gemstone that triumphs over adversity. It begins its lustrous life as an irritant, like a piece of sand or shell that drifts into the soft body of a mollusk. Caught unaware, the creature defends itself against the uninvited visitor by coating itself with layer upon layer of nacre or mother-of-pearl. After some time, the unwitting host inadvertently creates a glistening gem, emerging in a rainbow of colors and shapes as a delightful surprise from nature. As Federico Fellini one said, “The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”

With the Philippines called the “Perlas ng Silanganan” or “Pearl of the Orient Seas,” one can’t help but think of the similarities between this organic marvel and our beautiful country. When faced with challenges, Filipinos persevere with their trademark resilience, sense of bayanihan, and innate patriotism to emerge like the pearl, transformed and elevated. With that in mind and with the pearl being the birthstone of June, we take a closer look at this fascinating gem.

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Symbols of Status, Wealth, and Love

In ancient Chinese mythology pearls are considered emblems of wisdom formed inside the heads of dragons, and in Japanese mythology, as tears of mermaids and nymphs. The Persians, on the other hand, believed that pearls were created when a rainbow came from the sky and met with the earth. Their pristine splendor has made them representations of purity in many cultures, and they figure largely in religious symbolism as well. They were considered lucky by the ancient Romans, and in the Dark Ages, knights wore them into battle thinking these magical gems would protect them from harm.

In ancient Egyptian lore, Cleopatra was said to have crushed one of her pearls into a glass of wine to show Marc Antony how the wealth of a nation could be consumed in a single meal.

And while that may or may not be true, a few pearls are at least enough to get oneself a building. It is said that when Pierre, grandson of Cartier founder Louis-Francois, moved to New York to set up shop, he could only afford to rent.

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But he was able to strike up a deal with railroad tycoon Morton Plant, whose young wife Maisie had fallen in love with a breathtaking double-strand necklace of natural pearls valued at a million. Morton traded his mansion for the necklace, and the jeweler found its Fifth Avenue home.

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But this isn’t the only story of a man buying pearls for a woman. Pearls, like the goddess of love Venus, are borne of the sea. Many a besotted suitor have gifted their lover with pearls. One such fellow was Richard Burton, who purchased one of the most famous pearls in history, the La Peregrina, for his wife Elizabeth Taylor.

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The historic Peregrina pearl weighing 202.24 grains (50.56 carats) passed through the treasuries of 8 Kings of Spain from Philip II in 1582 to Carlos IV 1808 before falling into the hands of Joseph Bonaparte and Louis Napoleon of France between 1808 until 1848. It was not until 1969 that Richard Burton bought the pearl for Elizabeth Taylor. At that time the pearl was strung on a simple gold chain with the antique diamond leaf surmount visible here. She then commissioned Cartier to make an imposing pearl, diamond and ruby necklace in 1972. This was the top lot from the auction of ‘The Crown Jewels of Hollywood’ as Ms Taylor’s jewels were often referred to, which we sold in New York in December 2011. It realised $11.8m becoming the most expensive pearl necklace ever auctioned and was another of the extraordinary jewels that contributed towards our 25 consecutive years of market leadership. ([email protected] for a close up image of the pearl and more information on its history). @christiesinc #christiesjewels #christiesinc #christies #peregrinapearl #pearl #naturalpearls #diamond #ruby #necklace #elizabethtaylor #richardburton @cartier #throwback #tb

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Weighing a little over 50 carats and once owned by Spanish royalty, it continues to be one of the most symmetrical teardrop-shaped natural pearls to date, which was resold at an auction in 2011 for 11.8 million dollars.

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These glistening orbs were so revered that in ancient Rome, medieval France and a brief period of Elizabethan England, they were reserved only for the aristocracy. With the pearls being so exorbitantly expensive, for most of recorded history only nobility could afford them anyhow. At least until someone figured out how to cultivate pearls, drastically changing the pearl market. 

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Nature vs Nurture: How Pearls are Made

Pearls are formed by virtue of serendipity, when a piece of grit finds itself transformed into a precious jewel. When this happens on its own, what results is what we call a natural pearl. For centuries, divers would venture to great depths to retrieve hundreds of mollusks in the hope of finding one that would yield a prize.

Enterprising humans eventually came up with a way to persuade oysters into creating these beloved gems. By implanting the oyster with a tiny bead, which is then coated by the animal in layers of crystalline nacre in the controlled environment of a pearl farm, one can coax pearls into existence. In fact, most of the pearls found on the market today are actually cultured ones.

Whatever their provenance, be they natural or cultured, there are four main types of pearls that are used in fine jewelry.

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Four Types of Pearls

Freshwater Pearls

Origins: Freshwater pearls come from pearl mussels, and farming of these gems is done primarily in the lakes, rivers and ponds of China, as well as some parts of Japan and the U.S. Instead of a piece of shell, pearl farmers embed a piece of tissue from a donor mussel, on which the organism would form the nacre.

Characteristics: Colors range from white to a soft pink or peach. Since it doesn’t have a mother-of-pearl bead nucleus to guide its formation, freshwater pearls often have more organic shapes.

Famous Gems: Pearls have long been used to great effect in jewelry and the embellishment of religious objects. One such example is a rare manuscript called the Lindau Gospels, which is currently housed in the Morgan Library in New York. The medieval tome which is believed to be from the 9th century, features an intricate gold cover embellished with colored stones and freshwater pearls. 

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Akoya Pearls

Origins: The first cultured pearls were actually of the akoya variety, developed by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893, who wanted to prevent the over-harvesting of the oysters. Nowadays, akoya pearls are farmed in the waters surrounding Japan, Vietnam, and China.

Characteristics: Akoya pearls are generally brilliant white with overtones of rose and other pastel shades, and are often rounder than their peers. Because of cooler water temperatures of Akoya pearl farms, the oyster’s excretion process slows down, resulting in nacre with a more compact crystal structure and pearls with very high luster. 

Famous Gems: Pearls have long adorned the heads of royalty, of both the traditional and pageant variety. The Mikimoto pearl crown which is used by the Miss International Organization is composed of 778 gorgeous akoya pearls, and was even worn by our very own Kylie Verzosa who won the title in 2016.

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Tahitian Pearls

Origins: Cloaked in mystery because of their exotic hues, Tahitian pearls come from the black lip oyster or the Pinctada margaritifera. They are named so because they are mostly cultivated in the waters of French Polynesia, of which Tahiti is the largest island. Often known as ‘black pearls,’ their deep color is from melanin pigment secreted by the glandular cells of the oysters during the pearls' formation. 

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Characteristics: Because the black-lipped oyster is bigger than its counterparts, it also has the ability to create larger pearls. Tahitian pearls come in an assortment of elegant shades from white and gray to black, with the latter being the rarest. They are known for having exotic colorations, with an almost iridescent quality, and could also have overtones of gold, green, and blue that contribute to the richness of their appearance.

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Famous Gems: Owned by Anglo-Indian model Nina Dyer and designed by Cartier, the Three-Strand Black Pearl Necklace is made up of 151 perfectly matched Tahitian pearls. The famed necklace was a gift from either one of her two extremely wealthy husbands, Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza or Prince Sadruddin Agha Khan. After her death in 1965, the necklace was first auctioned by Christie’s in Geneva, and then by the same auctioneer in 1997 to a mystery buyer for almost a million dollars.

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South Sea Pearls

Origins: Grand and lustrous, South Sea pearls come from the Pinctada maxima oyster which comes in white-lipped and golden-lipped varieties. They are grown in the warm waters of the Philippines, Australia, and Indonesia. The oyster, being quite sensitive, and the pearl requiring a longer time for cultivation (almost double that of akoya pearl production), have made the South Sea pearl quite rare and valuable.

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Characteristics: Known as the ‘Queen of Pearls,’ the South Sea pearl boasts exceptional shine and iridescence owing to a thick layer of nacre. According to Mr. Jacques Christophe Branellec, executive vice president and deputy CEO of Jewelmer, the Philippines' golden South Sea pearls possess a “rich luster created by a combination of outer sheen and surface brilliance, enhancing the inner glow of the wearer.”

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Famous Gems: Declared by Philippine President Fidel Ramos as the National Gem in 1996, the Philippine South Sea pearl can also be found on the reverse side of the 1000-peso bill, making it a treasured gem in its own right. In 2017, Filipino jewelry brand Jewelmer unveiled a necklace of singular beauty which it has dubbed the Palawan Strand, named after the pristine waters where the pearls were born. It features the most beautiful golden South Sea pearls of exceptional size and matching each other seamlessly, and took the brand 37 years to complete. 

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Pearls of Great Prize

Identifying the origin of a pearl is merely half the battle, as the gemstones are also assessed by seven factors which, in combination, determine their value. While the best way to appraise a pearl is with the help of a reputable jeweler, knowing the factors that affect a pearl’s value is a definite must.

1. Luster

Of the many factors that determine a pearl’s value, most jewelers would agree that its luster would be of prime consideration, which is dependent on the thickness of the nacre. Exceptional pearls would seem like they are lit from within, and the clearer your reflection on its surface, the better.

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Jewelmer’s Jacques Branellec also notes that aside from luster, a pearl’s unique orient is also prized by experts. “The orient [is] created by a refraction of light as it penetrates through regular layers of aragonite crystals reflected from the cornea [and] bounced back to the surface, giving it a fiery rainbow-like effect.” 

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2. Shape

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Subject to whims of nature, pearls come in a variety of shapes. Truly spherical pearls are the most uncommon, and therefore the most expensive. Symmetry also plays a factor, with highly symmetric teardrops and ovals being prized pearls as well. Baroque pearls, or those with irregular shapes, are also having a moment, with jewelers utilizing their unique forms to great effect.

3. Size

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Pearls are measured by their diameter in millimeters. The general rule is that the bigger the pearl, the more costly it is. Freshwater varieties tend to be smaller, with Akoya ones in the middle of the spectrum. South Sea and Tahitian varieties tend to be a little bigger.

4. Surface

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The ‘cleanliness’ of a pearl refers to how smooth the surface is and the absence of spots or cracks that would interfere with its sheen. The more perfect the surface is, the more valuable the pearl becomes.

5. Color

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We normally think of pearls as white, but they actually come in a variety of gorgeous colors ranging from ivory to black, with many shades in between. The rich variety of hues is made even richer by a pearl’s secondary color or overtone, which adds to the gem’s beauty.

6. Nacre Thickness

Pearls with a thick coating of nacre tend to be more luminous as light bounces from the many crystalline layers of the pearl. Thicker nacres also make pearls more durable, making these specimens more desirable. 

7. Matching

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To create a classic pearl strand, jewelers have to match pearls based on size, luster, shape, and color, making the task extremely difficult. However, some designers have chosen to mix and match pearls creating interesting designs with an organic slant. 

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