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The Jewelry Hut
The Cultured Pearl; The Buying Guide
Getting to know Gems
How to select, buy, and care for, and enjoy Pearl Jewelry
What is a Pearl?
Different types of pearls: A pearl for every mood
There has never been a period in history when pearls were not in vogue. And today is no exception, pearls are in vogue. They go well with any style, in any place; they can be worn from morning to evening; they look smart and attractive with sportswear, add an executive touch to the business suite, or add elegance to even the most glamorous evening gown.
Today when on e mentions pearls many different images might come in mind. There are many more types of pearls available today than ever before. They offer a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, and a wide range in price.
There are simple pearls for the “sweet sixteen”, romantic pearls to add magic to the wedding day, classic pearls for executive, one-of-a-kind pearls the creative individualist, and important pearls to mark an important milestone. Like diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, there is a pearl for every age, every occasion, every personal style, and every budget.
With so many possibilities, just knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. The key is in knowing what types are available, how they compare to each other, and how to recognize quality differences.
The variety available today results from the use of different types of oyster, the physical environment in which they live, and varying cultivation techniques used by the producers. They are generally classified cultured pearls or freshwater cultured pearls, and divided into the while category, which includes pearls shades from pink-white to silver-white to creamy-white and yellow-white, and the fancy color category, the best known of which are the natural color black cultured pearls and the deep yellows and golden cultured pearls. They are also classified as round or baroque. A baroque pearl is, technically, any pearl that is not round; within the baroque category, pearls are also classified as symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical baroque pearls can be very costly (some comparable to round pearls) while asymmetrical baroque pearls are normally much more affordable than cultured pearls.
Saltwater cultured pearls
Cultured saltwater, or sea pearls, are grown today by pearl producing oysters in several parts of the world, including Australia, China, French Polynesia, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Among the best known are the Japanese Akoya (the classic round, white pearl), the larger South Sea pearl, and the naturally black Tahitian pearl.
In the 1950s, cultured pearls meant Japanese Akoya pearls, and Mikimoto owned most of the oyster beds; about 12,000,000 oysters, accounting for about 75% of the world’s supply of cultured pearls. Since the 1960s, however, the production of cultured pearls began to extend to other pearl farmers in Japan, and to other parts of the world.
While the basic pearl producing process is the same in a saltwater or freshwater mollusc, in the case of round cultured pearls there is one significant difference; the production of most freshwater pearls, such as the rice krispie type, requires the insertion of a piece of mantle tissue alone, while the production of round cultured pearls requires the insertion of round bead nucleus in addition to the piece of mantle tissue. Following the surgical implant of the nucleus, many will either reject the implant or die; of those remaining, more will die before harvest. Only 30% to 35% of the original group of oyster will actually produce a pearl. Only a very small faction of the pearls produced will be fine quality.
Saltwater cultured pearls command higher prices than freshwater cultured pearls. The costs and the risks involved in producing saltwater cultured pearls are much greater. They are much costlier to produce than most freshwater pearls, although American freshwater cultured pearls are also very expensive to produce. Higher costs are incurred just to obtain the shell from which the round, mother-of-pearl are fashioned, and to make them; higher labor costs are incurred for skilled technicians to perform the implant surgery; higher costs are incurred because a much greater number of ”spat” (baby oyster) must be collected and raised to insure an adequate supply of mature oyster for cultivation, and because a much greater number of oysters is required for a good yield; and so on.
The most important reason fro the cost difference, however, is that an individual saltwater oyster normally can produce only one or two sizable pearls at a time. I American freshwater cultured pearl production, only one to five can be produced at a time. By comparison, in China or Japan, a single freshwater mussel can produce 15 - 20 pearls at a time, or more.
Fresh water cultured pearls are grown in freshwater rather than saltwater, in mussels that live in lakes and rivers. One of the best known freshwater pearls is the Biwa pearl (named after Lake Biwa in Japan), which is one of the finest and most beautiful of the freshwater pearls. It often occurs in oval, barrel and coin shapes. Although the term “Biwa” should be used only fro pearls from Lake Biwa, it is often used indiscriminately to refer to any freshwater pearl; since Lake Biwa once produced almost all of the fine freshwater pearls, it has become a generic label for almost all freshwater pearls. Unfortunately, Lake Biwa production now has virtually ceased, and Chinese freshwater cultured pearls are being sent to Japan and sold as “Biwa.”
Freshwater cultured pearls are now grown in many countries. The leading producers include the United States, Japan, and China. Common mussel type molluscs are used. The process used to produce most freshwater pearls doesn’t require a shell nucleus; tissue grafting techniques are used instead, which facilitates mass production. The mollusc is also larger than that used to produce Akoya pearls. As a result, an individual mollusc can produce as many as 20 - 30 pearls at a time, or more. The pearls produced in this manner are normally small and very inexpensive. Using only mantle tissue, however, they are essentially all nacre, and top quality freshwater pearls are very lovely and offer very good value for the money. They occur in a wide range of colors and shapes, the most familiar having a long, narrow, rice shaped outline, generally with a wrinkle surface, although the surface can be very smooth. They cab have high luster or low, depending upon quality. Japan and China are the leading producers of this type of freshwater cultured pearl.
The look of the freshwater cultured pearls is changing, however. Very lovely round freshwater cultured pearls are also being produced today. These require more sophisticated production techniques, including an implant procedure. The exact technique being used has not been disclosed, but may involve the use of a round implant, possibly fashioned from the inexpensive, all nacre tissue nucleated pearl that is so abundant. The result, cultured pearl that is essentially all nacre! China is the primary source of these lovely pearls, but most are under 6 millimeter in size. We can also expect to see quantities of round American freshwater cultured pearls in the near future. Round freshwater pearls are more expensive than other types of freshwater cultured pearls, but normally much less expensive than round, saltwater pearls.
Some of the world’s most prized; and most beautiful, pearls are natural freshwater pearls. These are very expensive and can compare to the price of natural saltwater pearls. Frequently whiter than the natural saltwater pearl, and often with a more intense luster, these are the pearls that were so cherished by the Roman; pearls found in the rivers of the European countries they conquered. The only reason the Roman legions ever ventured into England, or so it is rumored, was to search for the rare and beautiful pink freshwater pearls found in Scotland!
Cultured freshwater pearls also occur in interesting shapes, as do the natural; in fact, natural “angle wing” pearls fro Mississippi River and other nearby rivers and lakes are very collectible. Cultured pearl producers are also culturing freshwater pearls in special shapes such as crosses, bars, and coins. These are referred to as fancy shapes.
Fresh water pearls occurs in a wide range of colors; a much wider variety than round, saltwater pearls, which gives them a special allure. Fresh water pearls colors include light, medium, and dark orange, lavender, purple, violet, blue, rose, and gray. Large natural freshwater pearls in unusual colors can be very expensive. Freshwater pearls may also be dyed. When buying freshwater pearls, be sure to ask if the color is natural.
Another interesting feature of freshwater pearls is that they can be worn singly or grouped alternating colors, either hanging straight or twisted for a distinctive effect. In addition to the versatility offered by the many colors options, the lower cost of most freshwater pearls (with exception of round) makes it possible to buy many strands and create an almost endless variety of looks.
American freshwater cultured pearls; Distinctly American
There are no other pearls being produced anywhere in the world that resemble the American freshwater cultured pearl. They are not at all the typical round, white pearls as referred to pearls. They have a look entirely their own, a result of being produced by very different methods, in a variety of mollusc that lives only in American rivers and lakes. Tennessee is the primary source of these American beauties as well as the source of the shell used to make the mother-of-pearl beads for nucleating cultured pearls in all other parts of the world.
American freshwater cultured pearls are produced by very unconventional freshwater culturing techniques which took years to develop. The first difference, and most important, is that a mother-of-pearl bead nucleus is implanted, as in saltwater cultured pearl production. Using a freshwater mollusc, however, combined with unconventional placement of the nucleus, results in a pearl with a very different appearance from other cultured pearls.
To produce American freshwater cultured pearls the nucleus is left inside the mollusc for a much longer time than is the case with other cultured pearls; from 3 - 5 years, compared to less than 12 months in most saltwater cultivation, giving them a much thicker nacre than is normally found in cultured pearls, and a pearls lustrousness and orient to which only the very finest cultured saltwater pearls, and natural pearls, can compare.
Another significant difference is that the American freshwater cultured pearl is never dyed, bleached, or enhanced. This creates a pearl that in many ways more closely resembles the natural pearl than other types of cultured pearls, including its longevity; the beauty of American freshwater cultured pearls will last longer than most cultured saltwater pearls now being produced. Of course, it also means, as with natural pearls, that there are marked differences in color, shape, and surface perfection, so matching is more difficult. These pearls are only for those who enjoy, appreciate and value the subtle differences nature places in all her creations.
Although much more affordable than saltwater cultured pearls, the cost is higher than for most other freshwater cultured pearls. American freshwater pearls occur in a variety of distinctive shapes not seen in other types of pearls; coin shapes, bars, marquises, ovals, and round “domes” that resembles mabe pearls.
The rarest pearls are round pearls, and round pearls in fine quality are very costly. A baroque pearl, technically, is any pearl that is not round and has an interesting irregular shape. Baroque pearls should not be confused with pearls that are simply “out-of-round” (this is the least desirable shape). They should a distinctive enough shape to be interesting and attractive. Baroque pearls can be produced by both saltwater and freshwater molluscs, and can be natural or cultured. They have a distinctive appeal because of their very beautiful tints of color and iridescent flashes, which are the result of “pools” of nacre (where the baroque shape creates an area in which the nacre can collect, and is deeper than along other parts of the pearls). Baroque pearls, with their distinctive irregular shapes, are more common than round pearls, which makes them more affordable, but they can make beautiful jewelry creations.
Symmetrical pearls, not round
A symmetrical pearl is one that is not round, but which has a beautiful, symmetrical shape, such as “teardrop” or “oval.” While they may be in the “baroque” class (since they are not round), they are rare, and, depending upon the shape and how perfect it is, a matched pair can be as costly as the roundest of pearls, or even more costly.
Button pearls are a type of symmetrical pearl produced naturally by both saltwater and freshwater molluscs. Cultured button pearls are produced primarily by saltwater oysters, but we are beginning to see some freshwater cultured button pearls from China. They are sought for their very distinctive and interesting shape: they have a flattish bottom and rounded top often resembling a “squash” or “cap” similar to that worn by Catholic Pope. They make lovely earrings and rings. They are less expensive than the finest round pearls, but depending upon the shape, size, and other factors, can still be expensive.
Types of saltwater and freshwater pearls
A mabe (Mah-bee or mah-BAY) pearl is a dome shaped pearl available in a variety of shapes, the most common being round or pear shapes. These pearls are produced very inexpensively, but they provide a very large, attractive look at affordable prices, compared to other pearls of comparable size. They are more fragile than other pearls and should be worn and handled with care.
The Mabe is an assembled pearl produced by placing a hemisphere shaped piece of plastic against the side of the shell interior. The oyster then produces a nacre coating over the plastic. The resulting “pearl” is cut from the shell, and the plastic removed (since the nacre won’t adhere to the plastic). The remaining hollow nacre “blister” is the filled with epoxy, following which a mother-of-pearl backing is attached. These pearls are not as durable as solid “blister” pearls, so some extra care should be taken when handling or wearing them. Be sure to wrap them in a soft cloth, and separate them from other jewelry, to protect them from getting scratched.
It is especially important when selecting mabe pearls to select pearls with a thick nacre layer. This is usually indicated by pearl’s lustrousness; the presence of a soft iridescence and high luster usually indicates a thicker nacre; a chalky quality usually indicates very thin nacre. With mabe pearls, the thinner the nacre the more FRAGILE the pearl; if the nacre is too thin, mabe pearls can crack or peel easily. They are especially popular for earrings and rings, but since they are more fragile than other pearls, they are not recommended for rings.
Solid blister pearls
The solid “blister” pearl; such as the American dome, is a dome shaped pearl similar to a mabe pearl but not assembled. This type of pearl is cultivated in freshwater lakes in Tennessee. It is available in several shapes, and has a distinctive look created by a mother-of-pearl border, retained from the shell lining when the pearl is removed. These pearls have an unusually high luster and a lovely iridescent play-of-color across the surface. They are more expensive than mabe pearls, but more durable.
Seed pearls and Keshi pearls
Seed pearls are tiny, round, natural pearls, usually under two millimeters in size. They are rare today, but often seen in antique jewelry. They are sometimes cut in half to create a large supply for a particular jewelry creation, or to rmove blemish or a misshapen side; these are much less expensive than full seed pearls. Seed pearls can be produced by both freshwater and saltwater molluscs.
Keshi pearls, also called “chance” pearls are interesting baroque pearls accidentally produced in saltwater oysters used for cultured pearl production. Sometimes an oyster rejects its bead implant, but particles of the accompanying mantle tissue used alongside the bead remain; these particles of mantle tissue stimulate the production of nacre, resulting in the wonderful, interesting pearls we as “keshi” pearls. They are unusual because, like natural pearls, they are essentially all nacre, and all natural. There is even some heated debate regarding whether or not they should technically be called natural pearls. Whatever you call them, they are comparable in every way to natural baroque pearls.
Japanese keshi are usually very small. The word “keshi” actually comes from the Japanese Japanese word meaning a tiny particle, and was used to refer to “poppy” pearls, a fitting image for the strands of minuscule pearls they describe, very tiny pearls that might be confused with natural seed pearls. At one time it was not unusual to see necklaces comprised of 20, 50, or as many as 100 strands of these tiny pearls strung together, the strands being so delicate they look like silken treads.
The keshi pearl now attracting the attention of collectors, however, is the South Sea variety, which is much larger, 8 - 10 millimeters and up. Virtually always baroque i shape, they offer a variety of unusual shapes, often oblong, and lend themselves to very distinctive jewelry creations. They occur in virtually all shades of color, gray to black, yellow to gold, even mauve and lilac tones. One of the most striking characteristics of the South Sea keshi pearl is its very intense luster and iridescence, far greater than what is normally seen in even the finest round cultured pearls.
They are very popular in Europe and the Middle East. For Moslems, they are particularly desirable because, like natural pearls, they are an all natural creation, and by comparison to the cost of natural pearls, very affordable.
But Keshi pearls are disappearing. Japanese and South Sea pearl producers are trying to reduce the number of keshi pearls being produced because the production of keshi creates a costly problems. As nature would have it, the oyster can only produce a certain amount of nacre; if keshi pearls are consuming nacre, that leaves less for the cultured pearl being produced simultaneously within the same oyster. This means that the more keshi pearls, the fewer fine, round cultured pearls. As the cultured pearl grower succeed in reducing the number of these “chance” pearls, fewer keshi pearls will be available. Prediction are that they will become more scarce in the years ahead, which is sparking serious attention from connoisseurs. If you yearn to own a keshi pearl necklace one day, don’t wait. These exquisite, all nacre pearls may one day be a thing of the past.
Ring or circled pearls
When a concentric ring encircles the surface of a pearl, it is “ringed” or “circled;” this is a type of surface characteristic that can occur on any variety of pearl. When a pearl exhibit numerous concentric rings from top to bottom, however, it crates a very interesting and distinctive looking pearl. Usually off-round or baroque in shape, and much less expensive than round pearls or symmetrical baroque pearls, these “ringed” or “circle” pearls have a special allure and are being used increasingly in jewelry; especially those from the South Pacific occurring in shades of white, gray to black, and aubergine. Artistic jewelry designers find find circle pearls an exciting choice for distinctive and dramatic creations.
Half pearls (do not confuse with mabe pearls) are usually small pearls, 2 - 3 millimeters, that have been cut in half to use for border decoration, as in a continuous row of pearls surrounding a cameo or center stone. They are inexpensive, but create a lovely effect.
Three-quarter pearls are pearls that are not fully round, but give the impression of being round. They can be natural or cultured, freshwater or saltwater. When mounted, it may be difficult to know for sure whether you have a fully round or 3/4 pearl because they are often mounted in cups to conceal the bottom and create the illusion of a fully round pearl.
A three-quarter pearl can be one of two things: a three-quarter solid cultured blister pearl, grown on the side of the interior of the shell using a nucleus that is only 3/4 round (it has one flat side, which is placed against the mollusc shell, similar to the mabe, but containing a mother-of-pearl nucleus so it is solid, not hollow); or, a full round cultured pearl that has had a portion cut away to eliminate a blemish or imperfect shape. As with other cultured pearls, they occur in a range of colors and sizes; usually 8 - 15 millimeters, and exhibit varying degrees of lustrousness. They are much less expensive than comparable round pearls, but make an attractive alternative for those who want a larger pearl than they might otherwise be able to afford in a true round pearl.
Note: Be suspicious of any attractively priced large pearl set in cup; it may contain a three-quarter pearl. These are frequently used in earrings.
After distinguishing between saltwater and freshwater pearls, the major categories into which cultured pearls are divided are “Akoya” Pearls, “South Sea” Pearls, and “Black” (or “Dark”) Pearls. There are “Akoya” button pearls, for example, and “South Sea” keshi pearls. And so on.
This is the pearl that comes to mind the moment anyone mention pearl; lustrous, round, white pearls. The finest Akoya pearls, originally produced in Japan, are more perfectly round than most other pearls and have the highest luster, which makes them especially desirable. Unfortunately, for those who prefer very large pearls, they rarely exceed 10 millimeters in diameter, and when they do, they command exceptionally high prices. In addition to Japan, China is now a major producer of Akoya pearls.
South Sea Pearls
South Sea pearls are the very large, regal white pearls often called the “queen” of cultured pearls. They are produced by a particular type of unusually large saltwater oyster, the Pinctada maxima. Today, a; pearls produced by this oyster are referred to as “South Sea” pearls. Most are now cultivated in the waters off Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, although Burma was once one of the most important producers of South Sea pearls.
The oyster producing south sea pearl is much larger than the Japanese oyster; many reach a foot or more in diameter. At this time the oysters used are a wild species that is rare and the supply for cultivation is never certain (commercial spawning which is used in other types of pearl production has not yet been very successful); this is one reason fine South Sea pearls are so rare and expensive. South Sea pearls usually start at 10 millimeters in size, and go up. Pearls from 11 to 14 millimeters are average. Pearls over 16 millimeters are considered very large. South Sea pearls are cultivated for longer periods and have much thicker nacre coatings than other pearls. This means they are often less perfectly round and more spotted than their smaller Japanese counterpart, but they are very beautiful and very expensive. The rarest, most expensive color is the warm pinkish white, but the silvery-white is perhaps more in demand and also very expensive. Yellow-white also exists, but these are the least popular and sell for much less. “fancy” intense yellow (truly rich yellow not in any way to be confused with off-white or yellow-white) and a wide variety of hues including many “golden” tones, are now in great demand. South Sea Pearls are rare in fine qualities, and more expensive than most other pearls, but they have the longest life expectancy of any cultured pearl.
Burmese pearls, the rarest, finest, and most valuable “South Sea” pearls
Burma once produced the rarest, finest, and most valuable “South Sea” pearls in the world. The best Burmese pearls possess an exceptionally high silky luster, unmatched by any other South Sea pearl, and a fine pink-white color. In recent years the quality of Burmese pearls has been deteriorating, however, because of a complicated political situation reducing availability of skilled technicians and disrupting quality control. Very few fine Burmese pearls are produced today; most are indistinguishable from other “South Sea” pearls and often are mixed in with them when sold.
Black cultured pearls are large pearls occurring naturally in a range colors from gray to black, normally in sizes over 8 millimeters, and averaging 11 - 12 millimeters. In very rare cases they have been known to exceed 20 millimeters. Technically a “South Sea” pearl, it is cultivated by a special variety of Pinctada oyster, in lagoons in the South Pacific. Fine black pearls are rare and costly, and should not be confused with artificially colored black pearls. Tahiti is the leading producer of top quality black pearls, followed by the Cook Islands and other islands of French Polynesia.
The “Abalone Pearl” and the “Conch Pearl”
Two unique gems from the deep
Pearls produced by nacreous pearl producing saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels are the focus of this article, but there are two unusual types of pearls that are highly prized and should be mentioned: the abalone pearl (pronounced “ab-uh-loh-nee) and the conch pearl (pronounced “konk”).
The abalone pearl is one of the most beautiful and unusual of all pearls. It is also one of the rarest. Unlike other saltwater pearls, this pearl is produced by a mollusc people do eat; it is the same abalone served in restaurants! In fact, the demand for the meat of the abalone has resulted in a serious depletion of abalone mussels and increased rarity of the abalone pearl.
The abalone produces an exquisitely colored and highly iridescent nacre and mother-of-pearl shell lining that has long been prized for inlay and shell jewelry. Like their shells, abalone pearls are vividly colored and highly iridescent.
It is a true nacreous pearl (consisting of many concentric layers of nacre), but it is not produced by a bivalve mollusc; it is produced by an ear-shaped univalve mollusc (one with single shell, such as a snail). If one’s definition of pearl requires that it be produced by a bivalve sea creature, then the abalone is not, technically speaking, a true pearl. On the other hand, if the deciding factor is that the beauty; the lovely luster and iridescence, result from alternating layers of nacre, then there can be no question that the abalone is a true pearl. Whatever the criteria, abalone pearls are rare and beautiful gems, especially sought after by top jewelry designers and connoisseurs around the world.
Most abalone pearls are natural pearls, for which there is a rapidly growing collector market. Many have been found in abalone off the Pacific coast of the United States. They are also found in Japan, New Zealand, and Korea. Cultured abalone pearls are beginning to appear in the pearl market as well, with research and production underway in the United States, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand. Currently production of cultured abalone pearls is limited to mabe pearls.
Each natural abalone pearl is unique in appearance. There are 96 known species of abalone, widely varying in shell color, size and rate of growth. These differences are reflected in the color, size, and shape of the pearls produced, and account for the distinctive individuality of each abalone pearl.
The colors of the abalone pearl are rich and exotic, ranging from a metallic silvery color to steel black, cream, golden, pink, and silvery-green, all with pronounced highlights of pink or magenta. The rarest and most highly prized abalone pearls offer rich peacock blue and green hues.
Shape in another distinguishing characteristic of natural abalone pearls. Mostly baroque, their shapes can quite striking and this adds to their allure. Some are shaped like elongated spheres, others like discs; many are horn or tooth shaped. Many are, oddly enough, hollow.
Once you have seen an abalone pearl, it can never be confused with any other type of pearl. There are no clear guides for judging them, but generally the same factors used to evaluate other types of pearls apply; color, luster, orient, shape, blemishes or skin perfection, nacre thickness and size.
In terms of color, the magenta and peacock greens and blue abalone pearls are the most desirable and command the highest prices. Most will have a brownish or discolored area; this is typical and does not usually diminish the value to any great extent. The higher the luster and iridescence (“orient”), the rarer and more valuable the pearl. The smoothness of the surface and freedom from blemishes is also very important, but keep in mind that it is extremely rare to find an abalone pearl wit a “flawless” surface or symmetrical shape; truly round or spherical abalone pearls are virtually unknown. Look for uniform nacre growth without “pockets” or “depressions” just under the surface. Very high orient or iridescence is important, and shapes that spark the imagination are also prized. As with pearls, size can’t be ignored. Most abalone pearls are the size of pebbles, but they can be quite large. An abalone weighing 471.10 carats is perhaps the world’s largest, but it is brownish and the quality is poor.
The “perfect” abalone is virtually nonexistent, but when one comes close to perfection, its price will be exceptionally high. An exceptionally fine, wedge shaped abalone pearl weighing 118.57 carats was found by a Pacific coast diver several years ago; it was a very rare gem exhibiting a strong green body color, rich iridescence, and a spotless surface. It was valued at over $140,000.
The Conch pearl (pronounced “konk”) is in a class by itself. The Conch pearl is not, technically speaking, considered a true pearl by most gemologists because it is not produced by a bivalve mollusc, nor is it a “nacreous” creation (created by the build up of numerous concentric layers of nacre). Nonetheless, few would disagree that it is indeed a rare and beautiful gem, one that can command a very high price.
The conch pearl is produced by the giant univalve conch that is found throughout the Caribbean. The conch is in great demand for its meat (conch fritters are delicious) and for its shell, which is used to make cameos and for garden decoration. Some people even pride themselves on their ability to blow the conch shell, and it was used by island tribes in the past to sound an alarm when danger approached.
Conch pearls, like other pearls are made of calcium carbonate, but they lack the build up of layer upon layer of nacre responsible for the characteristic luster and iridescence associated with pearls. Such pearls are called non-nacreous pearls. Most non-nacreous pearls are dull and unattractive, with little value; the conch is an exception.
The conch pearl can be strikingly beautiful and very costly. It has a distinctive porcelain like sheen combined with a unique “flame pattern” on the surface. This flame pattern resembles delicate, wavy, whitish lines covering the entire surface of the pearl. If you’ve ever seen wet silk, the pattern is similar. This “flame” structure separates it immediately from nacreous pearls, and from coral, with which it might otherwise be confused.
The chance of finding a conch pearl is slim: about one for every 10,000 - 15,000 conch shells opened. Most have pleasing symmetrical shapes; on rare occasions, round conch pearls have been found. Most are beige, ivory, or brown in color, but they are also found in salmon-orange, lilac, pink and deep rose shades. (The color may fade if exposed to strong sunlight for a prolonged time.) While shape and size are important, quality is judged primarily by the intensity of the color and pattern. The most prized conch pearl is nearly spherical with an intense flame pattern over a deep pink, lilac or orange-pink color. Symmetrical oval, teardrop and button shapes are also highly prized. Most conch pearls are small. The largest known conch pearl is a dark brown gem that comes from the “horse conch.” It is football shaped, weighs over 111 carats, and measures 27.47 millimeters in size.
Conch pearls are in great demand in Europe and the Middle East. The New York jewelry salon of Harry Winston created a magnificent conch pearl and diamond necklace, with accompanying conch pearl and diamond earrings, for an unidentified client, and the German jewelry firm Hemmerle has just completed a magnificent jewelry creation using the dark brown conch pearl mentioned above, the world’s largest. It is priced at $100,000.
There are other types of non-nacreous pearls which may be encountered. Most have little luster, little or no iridescence, and have little value.
Pearls have become an essential for any well-dressed woman today, and increasingly for men as well, yet most buyers feel overwhelmed and intimidated by all the choices, and the widely differing prices. But with just a little knowledge, you will be surprised by how quickly you can learn to see and understand variations in characteristics and quality.
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