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Pearls: A Quick Guide

When it comes to pearls, no two are the same. Whether they are freshwater or saltwater, cultured or simulated — knowing the basic attributes of pearls will be helpful when choosing your jewellery. Pearls are one of the oldest known gems, with only natural pearls being used until around 100 years ago.


Pearls are created when a foreign piece of material enters the mollusc. The mollusc’s natural mechanism is to then coat the piece of grit or sand in the same form as its shell, called nacre. They then layer the irritant to protect the mollusc's delicate inner. This creates a pearl. If the pearl is created in a shell with a blue inner, the pearl will take on this colour. If the pearl is created in a large shell, this will produce a larger pearl.


There are two types of pearl that are used most regularly in pieces of jewellery today — the freshwater pearl and the cultured pearl. A freshwater pearl is often found in mussels and oysters in rivers and lakes. Freshwater pearls are created naturally and often many are created in one shell. This then results in the slightly misshapen style of the pearl, as they have all be grown together. The natural colour of a freshwater pearl can range from light peach and pink, to white.


As freshwater pearls can be produced more quickly than a cultured pearl, this can bring their value down and are used to make more affordable pieces of pearl jewellery.


A row of freshwater pearls


Cultured pearls are formed when a bead is intentionally inserted into an oyster to create a pearl. A cultured pearl will follow the shape of the bead inserted into the muscle, therefore creating a perfectly round shape. Cultured pearls tend to be more expensive as they take longer to create. There are three major types of cultured pearls: Akoya pearls, South Sea and Tahitian.

Akoya pearls (as shown in the photo) are cultured saltwater pearls used in western and US markets, they can also be produced in Japan and China. These pearls are cream/white, and often have a superb lustre (shine) and round shape.


South Sea pearls are produced in Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines. They are known to have a silver or golden colour, with a thick nacre and a larger size — due to a longer period of growth. They have limited conditions in which they can be grown in, and therefore results in the South Sea pearl being of a higher value.


Tahitian pearls are mainly produced in French Polynesia. They are grown in saltwater and have a wide range of colour, black being the most prominent as they are grown in a black lipped oyster— along with grey, brown, pink or purple. Tahitian pearls were once the most valuable cultured pearls in the world, being even more valuable than the Akoya.


It is said that 99% of pearls on the market today are cultured, mainly because most natural pearls have already been harvested. Pearls are cultivated on farms, where the molluscs are all taken care of, but even when this is the case, some of the pearls produced are not quite good enough to make it to market. It can take up to 6 months to produce a pearl, and sometimes even longer!


With pearls being one of the oldest gemstones in the world, you can often find some stunning vintage and second hand pieces with pearls set into them. New, silver jewellery tends to be set with freshwater pearls, in pieces including silver pendants and earrings as a lower cost alternative. Cultured pearls are often used in strings of pearls and fine gold jewellery. Akoya, Tahitian and South Sea pearls will be a higher price simply because of the way they are cultivated and the quality of the final product they produce — high quality lustre, perfect round shape and colour specific to the pearl.


A second hand pearl brooch set in 15ct yellow gold, an example of how pearls would be set into older pieces of jewellery. Available to view on our website: https://www.twwillcox.co.uk/pearl-1?pgid=k56wwnlz-e5cc6f59-2ee7-4ddd-a79d-0d00fbfb91d3


We have a wide range of pearl pieces with something to suit everyone. From freshwater pearl studs on silver, cultured pearl earrings on yellow gold, as well as Akoya strings of pearls, second hand brooches and rings. Our pearl pieces are available to view on our website in new and second hand: https://www.twwillcox.co.uk/pearl





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