Akoya pearls are cultivated using Pinctada Fucata oysters. Although most of these pearls are produced in Japan, they are also cultivated in the tropical waters off the coasts of Korea, China, and Vietnam and as far as Sri Lanka. Akoya pearls range from two to eleven millimeters in size, and are typically round or off-round in shape. Pearls are often harvested after eighteen months to three years of culturing, reaching about 0.5 mm in diameter after eighteen months in the host oyster. Akoya pearls are renowned for their high luster and rich coloring, ranging from white to pink, blue and yellow.
Tahitian Black Pearls
Tahitian black pearls are cultivated from black lipped oysters, also known as Pinctada Margaritifera oysters, which reside in French Polynesian waters. Tahitian pearls come in a wide range of shades from silver/gray, blue, and red/dark purple to dark green. The colors of these jewels often carry rich trade names such as pistachio and aubergine, with peacock being the most valuable. Cultivation time averages about two years. Tahitian pearls are highly prized for their exotic hues and brilliant luster. Size ranges are generally between 9 to 14 mm, with their most common diameters between 9 and 11 mm.
South Sea Pearls
South Sea pearls are produced in the waters between the southern coast of China, the north coast of Australia and up to Indonesia and the Philippines. In these regions, where the seawater is clean and food is abundant, the Pinctada maxima oysters grow. This oyster can reach up to 12 inches in diameter, allowing it to form pearls much larger than those of other saltwater mollusks. Where Akoya pearls maintain an average of 7 mm and Tahitian pearls have a mean of 9.5mm, South Sea pearls average 13 millimeters and can grow as large as 20mm.
The subsets of the Pictada maxima oysters are the gold-lipped and silver-lipped. The two are distinguished by the rim in their interiors and the regions they favor, with more gold-lipped oysters living above the equator and silver-lipped mollusks preferring to live below it. Gold-lipped and silver-lipped oysters also produce pearls of different colors; the former creates yellow and orange hued pearls, while the latter forms white and silvery jewels. Both Pictada maximas offer a gorgeous satin luster that adds to their beauty and value.
Freshwater pearls are produced by mollusks from the Unionidae family, who reside in freshwater lakes and rivers. Both China and the United States have been the major sources of these pearls for centuries. Freshwater pearls can appear less lustrous than saltwater varieties; however, they are durable and resistant to wear, available in a wide variety of shapes and colors such as white, pink, purple and orange. Unlike saltwater mussels, multiple pearls can be successfully cultured within a Unionidae mollusk at a time, making these jewels more affordable. For these reasons, freshwater pearls are a popular choice for jewelry.
Sea animals in the Haliotis genus, also known as abalone, are valued for their meat and iridescent shells. Some are harvested in the wild, though aquiculture is common. A few cultivators, wanting to make greater use of the animal’s nacre, culture pearls inside the abalone.
From the 1890s onward, a number of people were experimenting with culturing abalone pearls, with different levels of success. Companies that create this type of jewel remain uncommon. Due to the picky nature of this mollusk, rounded beads are unlikely to become pearls, while flatter nuclei are more successful, giving these jewels unique shapes. Rare and striking, they are a stone any collector would be proud to have.
The most valued pearls resemble perfect spheres, though there are other shapes to admire. Hemispherical pearls are often mounted on backings to give the illusion of greater roundness, while pear shaped pearls are a popular choice for pendants and drop earrings. Baroque pearls are more eclectic, coming in a wealth of shapes limited only by imagination.
Notable baroque pearls include the 450 carat Hope Pearl, which is set as a pendant with gold and diamonds, the 300 carat Miracle of the Sea, which is in the form of a pendant topped with leaves, and the Canning Jewel, in which a baroque pearl forms the torso of a mythical being.
When an irritant affixes to the inner shell of a pearl oyster, the resulting jewel resembles an incomplete sphere rising from the shell. To some, it may look like a blemish, earning the name “blister.” This type forms both in the wild and cultured, though usually by accident. The earliest type of cultured blister pearls were often flattened with hollow interiors.
Though perfectly round pearls are highly prized, their blistered counterparts have an appeal of their own. Sometimes they’re cut from their shell moorings and mounted in a way that gives the illusion of a conventional pearl. Other designs play up their unusual growth, displaying the surrounding nacre. Those wishing to collect unconventional pearl jewelry may want to consider the latter type of blister pearl accessories.
For people looking for typical pearl jewelry, they may want to consider circled pearls. A quirk in the nacre layering process leaves raised bands around the circumference of the jewel. These ridges may appear in round, oval, pear or other shaped pearls, and can be mounted anywhere their smoother cousins are used.
Also known as button pearls, this type of jewel is round but flat. Like the more popular spherical types, they are strung together on necklaces, sometimes with the round parts facing outwards, or with the edges pointing ahead, creating a three dimensional look. These pearls are also used for earrings, brooches, and other places where a customer wants a look less ordinary.
The Strombus Gigas, or Queen Conch, is cultivated for its meat and shell. While their outer bodies are famous for the music they make when held to an ear or blown as a horn, they have other qualities. The inner shell is a glossy pink that sometimes encase intrusions, neutralizing the threat and creating a work of beauty. Jewel quality conch “pearls” lack the nacre of their oyster and mussel cousins, and aren’t considered true pearls in the industry. This doesn’t detract from their golden pink hue, porcelain gleam and glittery flashes embedded throughout their surface.
The Edwardian elite enjoyed jewelry featuring large “pearls” accompanied with diamonds platinum, while Art Nouveau designers incorporated the gems into their naturalistic creations. Interest in the jewels faded during the Art Deco period, though they were still sold in the Caribbean as tourist curiosities.
Conch “pearls” have been in decline, partly from overfishing, S. Gigas’ protected status, and the difficulty in culturing these jewels. Strides in raising the animal in aquatic farms have increased the chances of finding a 1 in 10,000 beauty, though they will remain uncommon for some time.
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