Throughout history, pearls have been prized as gemstones. The iridescent white gem, a byproduct of mollusks, is rare, beautiful and timeless. Synonymous with grace, class beauty, pearls have been used for a wide range of purposes. While they have been used in makeup and paint for to achieve a pearlescent effect, the most common use for pearls has always been jewelry and personal adornment.
How Pearls Are Formed
Natural pearls can be created by any living mollusk, like clams, mussels and oysters. Pearls are formed as a result of the mollusks immune system. When an irritant enters the mollusk’s shell, the mollusk protects itself by forming a ‘pearl sac’ around the irritant. The irritant is then coated in layer after layer of calcium carbonate, which forms the pearl. These layers are held together and given their iridescence by nacre, the substance which makes up the Mother-of-Pearl coating on the interior of the mollusk shell. Because they are primarily made of calcium carbonate, pearls can dissolve in weak acids like vinegar.
Natural Pearls vs Cultured Pearls vs Imitation Pearls
Natural Pearls are extremely rare and occur spontaneously in the wild. These pearls are highly sought after and valued as gemstones. Natural pearls occur in both salt and freshwater. Saltwater pearls are formed primarily by Pearl Oysters while freshwater pearls are formed primarily by Mussels. Because the only way to find natural pearls is to open and therefore kill, wild mollusks, it is very time consuming to locate and procure natural pearls, thus increasing their value. Cultured Pearls are created by Pearl Oysters that have had a piece of shell or sand artificially implanted so that they will form a pearl. Both natural and cultured pearls can form in a variety of shapes, ranging from the irregular keshi and elongated biwa to the oval potato and petite rice shapes. While the vast majority of natural pearls are an iridescent white, they occasionally form with slight colour tints. Cultured pearls are often died in a plethora of hues, like pastel green, lavender and grey. Imitation Pearls are just that-imitations. They can be made from coral, conch shell, mother of pearl and glass and have the benefit of uniformity.
Throughout history, pearls have been highly valued not only for their beauty and rarity, but for the cultural significance they have as well. Pearls are found in the religious scriptures of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Pearls are also linked to the astrological signs of Gemini and Cancer, are the 30th anniversary stones and are the traditional birthstones for the month of June. Over time, pearls have come to signify purity and innocence and are often worn by brides or sewn into bridal gowns.