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Pearls are dense, usually lustrous gemstones formed of concentric layers of nacre within the shell of mollusks (oysters or clams). Pearls are the only gemstones that form inside a living creature and they come in various shapes and colors.
Natural pearls form in nature without any human intervention. They begin as a piece of sand or other foreign substance that makes its way into the shell of a mollusk. It irritates the mollusk causing it to secrete a substance called nacre, a defense mechanism intended to protect it. The particle is coated with layer after layer of nacre, eventually forming a pearl.
Natural pearls are extremely rare. You'd be lucky to find 1 pearl in every 10,000 oysters. This scarcity is the reason why most pearls you find today are cultured pearls.
Cultured pearls, like natural pearls, grow inside a mollusk, but they don't begin as a foreign substance that accidentally makes its way into the mollusk. Humans insert mother of pearl or a piece of shell into the mollusk. Over time it becomes coated with nacre. The depth of the coating depends on how long the beads are left in place before being harvested, but typically the culturing process occurs over several years.
Cultured pearls are still actual pearls, the same as natural pearls, with all the same characteristics. The only difference is that instead of a particle being deposited in a mollusk by chance, a person puts it there on purpose. But the same natural process still occurs to actually make the pearl. Cutured pearls can be either freshwater pearls or saltwater pearls.
Freshwater pearls are formed in freshwater mussels and clams living in lakes, rivers and ponds. They are not as round as saltwater pearls and don't have the same luster and shine. But they come in a wide variety of shapes and natural colors and are much less expensive than saltwater pearls. Freshwater pearls are not round because they don't have a bead nucleus. They are grown by inserting small pieces of mantle tissue taken from another mussel into them. After the insertion, the mussel is returned to freshwater for several years at which point it will be harvested and produce anywhere from 12 to 32 pearls. Most of today's freshwater pearls are grown in China.
Saltwater pearls are grown in oysters that live in the ocean. There is only one pearl grown in each oyster and the oysters are sensitive to the process making it difficult and costly. So saltwater pearls are much more expensive than freshwater pearls. Saltwater pearls are commonly producued in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Tahiti and Japan. The three most common types of salwater pearls are Akoya Pearls, South Sea Pearls and Tahitian Pearls.
The process of culturing round pearls was originally patented in Japan by Kokichi Mikimoto. He produced the frst cultured pearl in 1893. His process involved culturing pearls inside Akoya oysters and these are aptly named Akoya Pearls. Akoya oysters are small so the resulting pearls tend to be small as well. However, Akoya oysters are also known for producing the most consistently round pearls. They are generally white or cream colored, with overtones of rose or silver. Today Akoya pearls are grown in Japan, China and Australia.
South Sea Pearls
South Sea Pearls are cultured in the warm water of the South Seas located between the northern coast of Australia and the southern coast of China. The oysters used to grow them can grow up to 12 inches wide enabling the placement of a much larger bead. South Sea Pearls have a satin luster and are produced in subtle shades of natural white, silver and gold. The oysters used are rare though and the resulting pearls larger so they are also more expensive.
The dramatic "Black Pearls" are Tahitian Pearls, grown in the oceans of French Polynesia. Although they are called black, their color ranges from silver to graphite and they commonly shimmer with shades of blue, purple and/or green mixed in as well. Truly black pearls are extremely rare.
Most people think of pearls as being white, but they actually occur naturally in many colors. They are commonly found in shades of gold, yellow, peach, pink, purple, green and blue. And, in addition to their natually occrring colors, they can be bleached, heat-treated and even irradiated to improve their color or make it more uniform. They can also be dyed into a full spectrum of colors, either to enhance their natural color or give them a completely different color.
Tahitian and South Sea Pearls, however, are beautiful and highly sought after in their natural colors so they are not usually enhanced at all.
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