Mad About Pearls - What is a Pearl?

How do you like your oysters?  With  pearls, please!

I love pearls!

What I love about them is that they all all a unique piece of art that takes a lot of hard work to create! They are gems from the sea!

PEARL has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable - when you know how they are formed and found you understand why!

This is what our friend Wikipedia says a pearl is:

pearl is a hard object produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk or another animal, such as a conulariid. Just like the shell of a mollusk, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate(mainly aragonite or a mixture of aragonite and calcite)[3] in minute crystalline form, which has been deposited in concentric layers.

OK - got that!  Just to make it simple - think OYSTER shell.

This is my explanation of what a pearl is - a beautiful, luminous, shiny, iridescent bead that somehow grows in an oyster shell.

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

Lets talk about the best first - a naturally forming pearl in a random shell in the sea.

Natural pearls form when an irritant - usually a parasite and not the proverbial grain of sand - works its way into an oyster, mussel, or clam. As a defense mechanism, the animal secretes a fluid to coat the foreign object and lessen the  irritation. Layer upon layer of this coating, called 'nacre', is deposited until a lustrous pearl is formed. Nacre is the luminous, shiny, irridescent beautifulness that is a pearl!  Nice round pearls are formed when the pearl is inside the animal itself, but pearls can form attached on the inside of the shell - giving the flat sided "mabe" pearls.  The longer the animal lives the bigger the pearl gets.

That's how a natural pearl is formed, and they are fairly rare, and why these type of  pearls are very costly.  Not only are they rare to form, finding them is a challenge!  Diving for the pearl shells  was dangerous and labour intensive.

The quality, colour and size of pearls depends on the type of oyster it is grown in.

Pearls from oysters from salt water oceans  are far superior to those from freshwater lakes and rivers. Pearls from the south seas off the Western Australian coast are the biggest and most perfect in the world. They come from the Pinctada maxima species, or white or yellow lipped oyster.  The most highly prized are the pure white pearls. They come in a golden yellow but I prefer the  creamy ones -  the pinky mauve colour ones are my absolute fav!  The only black natural pearl comes from the black-lipped oyster found in French Polynesia, Fiji and Tahiti.

There are some very special and rare pearls that are from clam shells - they are a solid pink coral colour - not as lustrous as pearls from oysters, but beautiful.  Most people get a bit uppity about clams being killed to get your hands on pearls that may be inside. 

The most beautiful of all is a pearl from the New Zealand paua shell.  Think Abalone - that beautiful purple/blue/green oval shell that has the delectable abalone seafood inside.  The shell is used in a lot of Maori and typical New Zealand designs and is relatively inexpensive,  but natural forming pearls or shells with the mabe pearls on them are highly prized and are magnificent in jewellery.

In my next article I will explain the difference between natural, "cultured", shell and man made pearls, and salt water pearls and freshwater pearls,..... Stay tuned! It's fascinating!


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