Mystical and miraculous, pearls have captivated us for millennia. Unlike gemstones mined from the ground, pearls are born inside a living creature.
A pearl’s shimmering beauty begins when an irritant enters certain salt and freshwater mollusks. These humble creatures respond by coating the irritant within layers of calcium carbonate, the same material that lines their shells. These layers build up like tree-rings, in concentric circles, over many years and, just like trees, older and larger pearls will have more rings than younger and smaller pearls. The reflection of light on these overlapping translucent layers, known as mother-of-pearl or nacre, gives pearls their signature iridescent sheen.
Pearls are rarely found in the wild with only one in about 10,000 mollusks containing a natural pearl. Today, most pearls on the market are cultivated in collaboration with Mother Nature. Cultured pearl technology requires highly skilled seeding technicians implanting mollusks with a tiny mother-of-pearl “seed” or bit of mantle tissue as the irritant that will initiate nacre production. The mollusks are then placed in special netted-panels and nurtured in pristine waters on pearl farms for several months to years depending on pearl type and desired quality. Constant care, proper nutrients and ideal weather are necessary for the mollusks to produce pearls. Even when all the proper attention and steps have been taken it is still up to the individual mollusk and Mother Nature to decide whether a pearl will be produced.
While pearl farmers work hard to cultivate flawless identically matched pearls, I prefer pearls with more character and a broad range of textures. My favorites are the tiniest of seed pearls. Often only 1-2mm in size, seed pearls are gorgeous when pin-set in clusters and mixed with other gems.
Photo credits: Julie Stanley/JuleImages