Learn About Pearls

A Guide To Pearls

Pearls are one of the most intriguing of all gems; however, they are also one of the most misunderstood. In an effort to answer your questions DesCar Jewelry Designs, Ltd. has compiled information for you.

What Is A Cultured Pearl?

Cultured Pearls result from a small irritant (usually a natural shell bead and/or piece of fleshy tissue) implanted into living oysters (Akoya and South Sea pearls) or mussels (Freshwater pearls). The oysters or mussels secrete a substance called “nacre” which bonds to the irritant. The resulting layers of nacre form the pearls.

Are Cultured Pearls And Simulated Pearls The Same Thing?

No. Cultured Pearls form over time inside the oyster or mussel in their natural environment. Simulated, imitation and “faux” pearls are man-made from a variety of products. Simulated pearls are made from the finest materials for a fine, Cultured Pearl look.

What Makes Some Cultured Pearls More Expensive Than Others?

Because Cultured Pearls are organic gemstones formed by nature no two pearls are exactly alike. A variety of factors go into determining the quality and price of pearl jewelry. Some characteristics that determine Cultured Pearl costs are:


Luster is the glow of the pearl and its brilliance to the human eye. The longer the pearl is left in the oyster to grow its nacre casing the higher the luster.

Surface Condition

The fewer the natural markings or spots on the pearl’s visible surface, the more expensive the pearl.


The more spherical (rounder) and symmetrical the pearl the more valuable it will be. Baroque pearls (any unusually shaped and asymmetrical pearl) can be very attractive and are usually less expensive than round pearls.


Pearls are available in a rainbow of colors, for example, pinkish (often called rose), silvery white, greenish white, creamy, golden, gray, cognac and black. Color enhancement is considered the norm for both colored and white base pearls. Color consistency effects value; however, current fashion trends and color demand conditions also effect pearl prices.


Pearl diameter is measured in millimeters. Generally, the larger the pearl, the more rare it is and the more valuable.


For pearl necklaces the overall look is very important, regardless of the quality of the individual pearls. The more uniform and aesthetically pleasing two or more pearls look together the more time was spent matching the pearls. This time to match pearls is reflected in the cost.


Because pearls are not cut or polished when removed from the oyster or mussel, certain sizes, qualities and colors may from time to time be in scarce supply. Overall health of pearl growing oysters and mussels effect pearl size and quality availability.

What’s The Difference Between Natural And Cultured Pearls?

Natural pearls, just as the name implies, were formed when irritants entered the oyster by accident. This is a pretty rare occurrence and doesn’t result in many jewelry quality pearls being available. About 100 years ago a Japanese pearl farmer developed a process whereby a small piece of shell could be inserted into living Akoya oysters. These oysters were then put back into the water and the pearl forming process began. Today cultured pearls account for the majority of pearls used in jewelry

Are Cultured Pearls And Simulated Pearls The Same Thing?

No. Cultured pearls are formed, over time, in oysters in their natural state. Simulated, imitation, and “faux” pearls are man-made out of a variety of products including, glass and plastic compounds.

What Makes Some Cultured Pearls More Expensive Than Others?

Because cultured pearls are organic gemstones formed by nature no two pearls are exactly alike. A variety of factors go into determining the quality and thus, the price of your pearl jewelry.

Luster – The glow of the pearl and its brilliance to the human eye. The longer the pearl is left in the oyster to form the thicker the layer of nacre surrounding the pearl and the higher the luster.

Surface – The fewer the spots, discolorations, cracks or blemishes the more expensive the pearl.

Shape – The more spherical (rounder) and symmetrical the pearl the more valuable it will be. Baroque pearls (any unusually shaped and asymmetrical pearl) can be very attractive and are usually less expensive than round pearls.

Color – Available in a rainbow of colors; pinkish (called rose´), silvery white, greenish white, creamy, golden overtones, gray, cognac and black. Color enhancement is considered the norm for both colored and white base pearls.

Size – The diameter of a pearl measured in millimeters. Generally, the larger the pearl the more rare it is to find and the more valuable.


for pearl necklaces the overall look is very important. The more uniform the necklace looks the more time was spent matching the pearls and the more costly the necklace.


Because pearls are not cut or polished when removed from the oyster, certain sizes, qualities, and colors may from time to time be in scarce supply. In recent years both water pollution and diseases that effect pearl growing oysters have effected supplies of some pearl sizes and qualities. This has effected both availability and cost.

Care Of Pearls

Pearls are very soft and need special care. They never should be tossed on top of or next to other gems in a jewelry box. Store them in a jewelry pouch.

Some women’s skin is more acidic than others. If a pearl necklace is regularly worn, as it should be, some of the pearls will constantly be in close contact with the woman’s skin on her neck at the shoulder line. Pearl pendants do not always have such constant contact with a woman’s skin. The pearls in the necklace will gradually absorb acid from the skin and the acid will slowly eat into the spherical pearl. Over time, the pearl will not only lose its luster but will become barrel-shaped. You can slow this process by wiping the pearls with a soft cloth after wearing them.

Besides being soft, pearls are easily damaged by chemicals like perfume, vinegar, and lemon juice. Heat can turn pearls brown, dry them out and make them crack. Dry air can also damage pearls. Most safe deposit vaults have very dry air and can damage pearls.

When taking off a pearl ring, grasp the shank, or metal part, rather than the pearl. This will prevent the pearl from loosening and coming into contact with skin oils on your hand.

Because of their delicate nature, special care must be taken when cleaning.

  • Only use jewelry cleaners labeled as safe for pearls.
  • Never use an ultrasonic cleaner.
  • Never steam-clean pearls.
  • Never use (or expose pearls) to dish or wash detergents, bleaches, powdered cleansers, baking soda, or ammonia-based cleaners (like Windex).
  • Never use toothbrushes, scouring pads or abrasive materials to clean pearls.
  • Do not wear pearls when the string is wet. Wet strings stretch and attract dirt, which is hard to remove.
  • Do not hang pearls to dry.
  • Take your pearls off when applying cosmetics, hair spray, and perfume, or when showering or swimming.
  • Avoid wearing pearls with rough fabrics like Shetland wool.
    Have your pearls restrung once a year if you wear them often.

Cleaning Pearls

After you wear pearls, just wipe them off with a soft cloth or chamois, which may be dry or damp. This will prevent dirt from accumulating and keep perspiration, which is slightly acidic, from eating away at the pearl nacre. You can even use a drop of olive oil on the cloth to help maintain their luster.

If pearls have not been kept clean and are very dirty, they can be cleaned by your jewelers or they can be cleaned using special pearl cleaner. Pearl Oasis sells pearl-safe jewelry cleaner. Be careful using other types of jewelry cleaner or soap. Some liquid soaps, such as Dawn, can damage pearls. Pay attention to the areas around the drill holes where dirt may tend to collect.

After washing your pearls, lay them flat in a moist kitchen towel to dry. When the towel is dry, your pearls should be dry.

About every six months have a jewelry professional verify that the pearls on your jewelry are securely mounted or that the string is still good. Many jewelers will do this free of charge, and they’ll be happy to answer your questions about the care of your jewelry.

Akoya Cultered Pearls…

Grown in Japan and China Akoya pearls are the classic cultured pearls of Japan. They are the most lustrous of all pearls found anywhere in the world. In recent years, China has been successful in producing Akoya pearls within their own waters. However, at this time they are unable to produce as brilliant a luster as high quality Japanese Akoya cultured pearls.

The Akoya pearl is either white or cream in body color and can have yellow, pink or blue hues. Some Akoya pearls achieve a rosé or green overtone. It typically has an excellent, good or fair luster, which is why the Akoya is such a prized gem. The best pearls have clean surface quality and acceptable nacre. The most highly valued Akoyas are larger, have excellent luster and clean surface quality.

Only one pearl and maybe an accidental Keshi pearl is harvested from one oyster. This is one reason why seapearls are usually higher price that freshwater pearls…several freshwater pearls can be grown at a time in each clam.

The Akoya pearl oyster Pinctada imbricata has been fished for pearls for centuries and is amongst the most widespread of the pearl oyster species. Akoya oysters are found on areas of the eastern coastline of North and South America , the east-coast of Africa , the Mediterranean and throughout the Indo-Pacific. Most notably, the Akoya oyster is found in Japan , where it has formed the basis of a multi-million dollar pearling industry.

The Japanese Akoya, Pinctada fucata martensii, or Pinctada fucata produces pearls between two and ten millimeters in size, the industry standard for many decades.


Mother Nature’s Creation…
Always Unique…

A great irony of pearl history is that the least expensive cultured pearl product in the market today rivals the quality of the most expensive natural pearls ever found. The price-value anomaly is obvious to consumers as they hasten to buy Chinese freshwater bargains.

Indeed, pearls from freshwater mussels lie at the center of the liveliest activity in pearling today. Natural freshwater pearls occur in mussels for the same reason that saltwater pearls occur in oysters. Foreign material, usually a sharp object or parasite, enters a mussel and cannot be expelled. To reduce irritation, the mollusk coats the intruder with the same secretion it uses for shell-building, nacre. To culture freshwater mussels, workers slightly open their shells, cut small slits into the mantle tissue inside both shells, and insert small pieces of live mantle tissue from another mussel into those slits. In freshwater mussels that insertion alone is sufficient to start nacre production. Most cultured freshwater pearls are composed entirely of nacre, just like their natural freshwater and natural saltwater counterparts.

The Chinese were the first to culture a product from freshwater mussels, though their centuries-old Buddhas are not true pearls but shell mabes. The first cultured freshwater pearls originated in Japan. Quite soon after their initial success with cultured saltwater pearls, Japanese pearl farmers experimented with freshwater mussels in Lake Biwa, a large lake near Kyoto. Initial commercial freshwater pearl crops appeared in the 1930s. The all-nacre Biwa pearls formed in colors unseen in saltwater pearls. Almost instantly appealing, their lustre and luminescent depth rivaled naturals because they, too, were pearls throughout.

The China Syndrome

pearlsThe popularity and abundance of big Chinese freshwater pearls has prompted questions about culturing practices, pricing and integrity.

Throughout most of this century, the Japanese dominated the cultured-pearl industry.

Warm… Sensual
Elegant… Understated
Dramatic… yet Simple

Rich, luminous colors of black, grey, peacock and more
Tahitian Cultured Pearls… Definitely you!

The Black Tahitian pearl is produced by the Black Lipped oyster (Pinctada Margaritafera) which is found in the waters of French Polynesia. Natural Black Tahitian pearls are extremely rare since only one out of about 10,000 oysters contains a pearl. The Black Lipped oyster was nearly harvested to extinction in the early 1900’s. These oysters were in high demand primarily for the Mother of Pearl which is part of the oyster shell. Fortunately, the Black Lipped oyster was rescued and is now raised in sea farms in French Polynesia. Black Tahitian pearls are cultured in these oysters on pearl farms in the atolls of French Polynesia. Most of these pearl farms are in the Tuamoto and Gambier island groups. The shape, color, and luster of these certified cultured Black Tahitian pearls are natural.

These cultured certified Black Tahitian pearls range in size from about 8 mm to about 25 mm in diameter which is the size of the largest black Tahitian pearl ever found. Black Tahitian pearls 12 mm in diameter or larger are considered to be rare. These pearls can be very large because the Black Lipped oysters grow to be as large as 12″ across and to be 10 pounds in weight. Most Black Tahitian pearls are not really black. Colors can be light silver, gray, yellow bronze, green with pink overtone, and peacock with nearly all colors showing in play-of-color on the surface of the pearl.

Black Pearls, Grey Pearls, Tahitian Pearls: magical names that evoke the singularity and the origin of this jewel of the sea. A gift from the god ORO, King of the Firmament, the Tahitian pearl develops its perfect shape and colors in the deep turquoise waters of Polynesian lagoons. The secret treasure of coral islands, it was long considered a royal symbol. A natural substance, it is the fruit of the combination of animal and mineral. Cultivated by man, it is the arbitrator of a constant dialogue between him and the elements. Pampered from its earliest age in the womb of the black-lipped oyster, it perfects its beauty and lustre over two long years. The pearl farmer constantly watches over it, much like a father over his son. Should the weather look stormy, he immerses it more deeply in the lagoon. Should the weather turn too warm, he will move it to a cooler place. Perfect at birth, it needs no molding or shaping, just the enhancement of its natural beauty with other jewels worthy of it. And so, the pearl farmer of Polynesia could do no less than entrust such a divine object into the hands of the finest jewelers, who know how to pay homage to its imperial beauty.

Five factors are used to determine the grade and value of Black Pearls.


Black Pearl SizeIn the Cook Islands Pinctada Margaritifera produces pearls with an average diameter of 10-11mm. While sizes can reach up to 18mm, pearls above 13mm are very rare and represent a small percentage of any harvest.


Black Pearl ColorRemarkably, Black Pearls are rarely just black. The black or dark grey body color of Cook Islands Pearls combine with a multitude of iridescent hues from its host shell. Ranging through Greens, Pink/Rose, Ocean Blues, Platinum or Peacock highlights, Black Pearls have become most famous for their never-ending palette of colour.


threeIs the brilliance and reflection of light on the surface of the pearl. Warm and alluring, it is a virtue that combines quantum nature of light and the subjective views of the beholder.


Black Pearl ShapePearl shapes include Round, Semi Round, Drop, Baroque, Circle and Button. Nature and the host shell will ultimately determine the end shape of a pearl but its many different shapes lend themselves to settings limited only by the imagination.


Black Pearl SurfaceIn addition to the qualities already mentioned, fine pearls will have very few surface marks or depressions. But, as with all of nature’s creations, it is very unusual to find a pearl totally without marks. Instead they should be considered evidence of natures art and bear testimony to the creation of a pearl.

Anatomy Of The Black Lipped Oyster ( Pinctada Margaritifera )

Species of this shell are widely distributed throughout tropical Indo-Pacific waters from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of California and from Japan to the southern islands of the Pacific. More specifically, this oyster also is found in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia, the Philippines, Panama and the Gulf of California.

An adult Pinctada oyster can reach a diameter of 30 centimeters (11.8 inches), with a weight exceeding 5 kilograms (11 pounds). Rare specimens as large as 9 kilos (19.8 pounds) have been harvested.

This species of oyster demonstrates the peculiarity of undergoing a change of sex normally during the course of its life. Two to three years of growth are required before the oyster is ready for reproduction.

During its female stage, the mature Pinctada lays eggs all year. Only the extraordinary quantity of eggs produced -40 million per specimen- assures the survival of the species in its natural environment, where the spermatozoon must rely on a chance encounter for conception.

Developing larva then become prey for all sea creatures that eat plankton, including the living coral of the reefs. Surviving young oysters, once they develop bivalve shells, are called “spats”. But they continue to be targets of many predators, including giant rays, octopus, crabs, starfish and trigger-fish.

Oyster Diagram

How Pearls Are Formed

There are essentially three types of pearls: natural, cultured and imitation.

A natural pearl (often called an Oriental pearl) forms when an irritant, such as a piece of sand, works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel, or clam. As a defense mechanism, the mollusk secretes a fluid to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited on the irritant until a lustrous pearl is formed.

A cultured pearl undergoes the same process. The only difference is that the irritant is a surgically implanted bead or piece of shell called Mother of Pearl. Often, these shells are ground oyster shells that are worth significant amounts of money in their own right as irritant-catalysts for quality pearls. The resulting core is, therefore, much larger than in a natural pearl. Yet, as long as there are enough layers of nacre (the secreted fluid covering the irritant) to result in a beautiful, gem-quality pearl, the size of the nucleus is of no consequence to beauty or durability.

Pearls can come from either salt or freshwater sources. Typically, saltwater pearls tend to be higher quality, although there are several types of freshwater pearls that are considered high in quality as well. Freshwater pearls tend to be very irregular in shape, with a puffed rice appearance the most prevalent. Nevertheless, it is each individual pearls merits that determines value more than the source of the pearl.

Regardless of the method used to acquire a pearl, the process usually takes several years. Mussels must reach a mature age, which can take up to 3 years, and then be implanted or naturally receive an irritant. Once the irritant is in place, it can take up to another 3 years for the pearl to reach its full size. Often, the irritant may be rejected, the pearl will be terrifically misshapen, or the oyster may simply die from disease or countless other complications. By the end of a 5 to 10 year cycle, only 50% of the oysters will have survived. Of the pearls produced, only approximately 5% are of substantial quality for top jewelry makers. From the outset, a pearl farmer can figure on spending over $100 for every oyster that is farmed, of which many will produce nothing or die.

Imitation pearls are a different story altogether. In most cases, a glass bead is dipped into a solution made from fish scales. This coating is thin and may eventually wear off. One can usually tell an imitation by biting on it. Fake pearls glide across your teeth, while the layers of nacre on real pearls feel gritty. The Island of Mallorca is known for its imitation pearl industry.


Where Pearls Are Found

Pearl Countries and Regions

Historically, the world’s best pearls came from the Persian Gulf, especially around what is now Bahrain. The pearls of the Persian Gulf were natural created and collected by breath-hold divers. The secret to the special luster of Gulf pearls probably derived from the unique mixture of sweet and salt water around the island. Unfortunately, The natural pearl industry of the Persian Gulf ended abruptly in the early 1930’s with the discovery of large deposits of oil. Those who once dove for pearls sought prosperity in the economic boom ushered in by the oil industry. The water pollution resulting from spilled oil and indiscriminate over-fishing of oysters essentially ruined the once pristine pearl producing waters of the Gulf. Today, pearl diving is practiced only as a hobby.


The largest stock of natural pearls probably resides in India. Ironically, much of India’s stock of natural pearls came originally from Bahrain. Unlike Bahrain, which has essentially lost its pearl resource, traditional pearl fishing is still practiced on a small scale in India. The art of culturing pearls was invented in Japan in 1893 by a man named Kokichi Mikimoto. He discovered that by introducing a tiny bead of mother-of-pearl (the white substance on the inside of a mussel’s shell) into an oyster, that oyster would began to cover the irritant with nacre (the secreted substance that makes up a pearl).

Interestingly, one of the first places to begin farming cultured pearls outside of Japan was near the Gulf of California in Mexico. Unfortunately, Mexican pearls disappeared from the international markets when over fishing of natural pearl oyster banks took its toll and the Mexican government had to impose a No-Fishing law in the late 1940’s. Mexico is today attempting to return to the pearl market with cultured half-pearls (meaning they are only pearl slices or hemispheres, not round).

Pearls predominately come from Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar, China, India, Philippines, and Tahiti. The South Sea waters around Australia, Indonesia, and Myanmar are renowned for their large, white pearls, while Japan’s pearls are highly valued for their lustrous character. Freshwater pearls constitute the bulk of China’s pearl efforts. And as mentioned earlier, India is recognized as one of the last producers and handlers of naturally occurring pearls. Interestingly, although Australia’s pearls derive from the same sea as those from Indonesia and Myanmar, Australia consistently advertises their pearls as distinctly superior to other South Sea pearls, emphasizing the importance of the country of origin, not simply the body of water from which they came. The picture shows locations where pearls are prevalent.

White South Seas Pearls

Cultivated primarily in Australia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and the islands of the South Pacific. They are produced by the oyster species Pinctada maxima. South Sea pearls tend to be both the largest and the rarest of pearls. Their rarity is due to the fact that growing larger pearls requires a great deal of time, during which many things can go wrong: the oysters can die, the pearl can become misshapen, etc. Thus, South Sea pearls tend to be among the most expensive of pearls, commanding high prices for quality specimens. Their most common colors are white, silver, and gold.

Almost all South Sea Pearls are cultivated, with Australia being the source of the majority of the world’s finest pearls. As in the past, the pearl divers still exist, but today their role is to collect Mother of Pearl shells and deliver them to the pearl farms for the cultivation of South Sea Pearls.

How Do Australian South Sea Pearls Differ From Natural Pearls?

pearlsThe technique used to grow pearls off the north Australian coastline involves man implanting a nucleus which becomes the centre of a cultured South Sea Pearl. For a “wild” or natural pearl to grow, nature implants the nucleus … in the form of some foreign material such as a shell fragment or a burrowing insect, which then becomes the centre of the pearl.

Unlike other cultured pearls, The South Sea cultivated Pearl consists predominantly of pearl material known as nacre. The quality and thickness of the nacre is the most important factor in determining a pearl’s beauty and value.

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The famous Australian Pinctada Maxima pearl oyster produces some the finest and most beautiful pearls in the world. The Pinctada Maxima grows in Roebuck Bay and the banks of Eighty Mile Beach and was first discovered in 1861 by the crew of the ‘Dolphin’ at Nickel Bay. The size of the shell is huge in comparison to any other shell available and caused a sensation in European and American markets when it first appeared. The average size of the shell is six to twelve inches. These giant North West pearl oyster develop a silver shine on their nacre and look truly magnificent.