Pearls have been known and revered since ancient times. Today, we think of pearls as modestly expensive, lovely adornments, but before the exploration of the Americas pearls were among the costliest of gems. They are not, strictly speaking, gems at all. Rather, they are the buildup of a natural protective substance in a shellfish – the oyster. When an irritant – like a grain of sand – finds its way inside the shell of an oyster or other mollusk, its body reacts by forming a small sac around the intruder, then building up layer after layer of nacre around it. The result – a pearl. Until the 1800s, pearl divers might have to bring up 500 oysters from below the sea to find enough pearls to make their day worthwhile. A perfectly round pearl was a rarity – it might take days of diving to find several perfectly round pearls of the same size. Their rarity and the difficulty of diving for pearls made them among the most expensive and highly prized of all gems. In these days of farmed and cultured pearls, it’s almost impossible for us to conceive of the value of pearls in ancient times. It’s said that a Tsar of Russia built an entire army on the sale of just one of his mother’s pearl earrings. And when Cleopatra wanted to impress Mark Anthony with the wealth of her kingdom, she served him the most expensive dinner of all time – a single ground pearl dissolved in wine.
Ancient Indian tradition knew nothing of irritants and bodily substances. In Indian lore, pearls are drops of dew that fall from the night sky beneath a full moon and are swallowed by oysters. Other traditions call them the tears of heaven, and Indian warriors often adorned their shields with pearls to represent the tears that their swords would cause in war. For all of that, pearls are seen as the gem of perfect and pure love – round, lustrous and white. There is a long standing tradition that a bride wears a strand of pearls on her wedding day – often one handed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Perhaps one of the most romantic of all wedding gifts was given by Shah Jahan – who also built the Taj Mahal as a tribute to her – to his wife on their wedding day. The Star of Asia (sometimes called the Pearl of Asia) is a teardrop shaped pearl weighing nearly 14 pounds. It was taken by the King of Persia who presented it as a gift to the Chinese emperor, with whom it was buried. The pearl was stolen by grave robbers, and its trail is muddied – but it eventually landed in the hands of a collector who now allows its display.
Other famous pearls in history have included matched sets owned by Mary Tudor, the Empress Eugenie, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth Taylor.
Strictly speaking, pearls are not gemstones but a natural substance secreted by some mollusks when an irritant stimulates its production. That’s a rather dry description of one of the loveliest, most lustrous gems in existence. Unlike many other gems that have fire and flash, natural pearls have a warm, soft luster that only deepens with wear and age.
June’s birthstone, the pearl is one of the most ancient gems and has been used decoratively for thousands of years. At one point, pearls were more highly valued than diamonds because of their rarity and the difficulty of finding perfect specimens. The art of culturing pearls have made them more affordable, and freshwater pearls are among the most affordable of semi-precious gems.
Pearl buying guide
Pearls are one of the major exceptions to the 4 C’s judging of quality. Instead, pearls are judged by completely different criteria.
Luster is a measure of the glow and shininess of a pearl. It’s the result of light being both refracted down through the layers of nacre at the same time it is reflecting back from them. High luster is desirable in a pearl.
White is the color most often associated with pearl, and the most valued are generally pure, gleaming bone white with no yellow or pink overtones. The exception is black pearls, which are highly prized and valued. Pink and cream colored pearls are also beautiful, and if they are matched perfectly in color and size can command a high price.
How do you tell a genuine pearl from a fake? Experts say that you rub it against your teeth. Cultured and natural pearls will have a grainy or rough texture that no fake pearl has been able to match.
Shape and size
Round and pear are the shapes that are most valued by gem buyers. If you’re buying a strand of pearls, look for either pearls of the same size and shape, or for pearls that graduate smoothly in size from the center to the ends. The more smooth the gradations, the more you can expect to pay for the strand of pearls. Size is measured in millimeters for individual pearls and length in inches for the strands. The larger the pearl or the longer the strand, obviously, the more expensive the price will be.
Pearls are one of the gems where place of origin does make a difference in pricing. In general, natural pearls – which are nearly non-existent – will command the highest price, followed by South Sea pearls, Tahitian pearls, Akoya pearls and freshwater pearls.
Caring for pearls
Pearls require special handling. The nacre on cultured pearls is an organic material that can easily be chipped, cracked or discolored. In addition, unlike other gems that are usually set in metal, pearls are most often strung on silk, which can get dirty and loosen over time.
Put on your pearls AFTER applying makeup, hair spray and perfume. Avoid getting chemicals on them.
Never wear pearls while swimming or working with chemicals which can damage both the pearls and the silk on which they are strung.
Cleaning your pearls
Clean your pearls with a soft, dry cloth after wearing them to remove bodily oils and surface dirt. Have your pearls professionally cleaned and restrung every year or two. Don’t soak or clean in an ultrasonic cleaner.
Storing your pearls
Store pearls in a soft pouch away from other jewelry to prevent scratching and nicking.