Pearls are one of the very earliest gemstones used for adornment, and in fact have decorated humans for thousands of years. Pearls are produced by shellfish known as molluscs; these include saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels. To form a natural pearl, damage to the soft tissue (mantle) in the inside of the mollusc - caused by parasites, disease or attack - is coated in layer after layer of nacre forming the lustrous round or off-round ball we recognise from our jewellery. Pearls can also be cultured by man, and in this case mantle and sometimes beads are implanted into molluscs to kickstart the nacre covering process.
Different Types of Pearl
Pearls can be natural (very rare) or cultured (created for over a century, since the early 1900s). Both natural and cultured pearls can come from saltwater or freshwater shellfish.
Saltwater pearls are grown in oysters in oceans, seas, gulfs and bays. The best known example of a saltwater pearl is the Akoya which can range anywhere from 1-10mm in size. Another well known saltwater pearl is the South Sea Pearl, which tends to be larger than the Akoya at 9-19mm. Freshwater pearls, on the other hand, come from mussels in rivers, lakes and ponds.
Blister pearls, which grow on the inside of the mollusc shell rather than in the mantle, are left with one flat side when cut away. While seed pearls are tiny pearls that measure less than 2mm. These pearls are commonly found as decoration in antique jewellery.
Pearl Shapes & Colours
Pearls can be round, near-round, semi-baroque (which include pear, egg and button shaped) and baroque which are very distorted and irregular in shape. Pearls can be white, cream, yellow/golden, grey, brown and black with varying tints that can range from pink, green, blue and lilac. Pearls vary in lustre depending on nacre thickness and other factors - the more lustrous a pearl, the more valuable and desirable.
The 450 carat 'Hope Pearl' is one one of the largest pearls ever found. It's actually a blister pearl, cut from the shell of a mollusc and believed to come from the Middle East, around the Persian Gulf / Red Sea.
A beautiful drop shaped pearl, discovered off the coast of Panama by a slave sometime around 1550. From Spanish Kings to British Queens, the pearl has travelled the globe. In the 1960s, it was purchased by Richard Burton for his wife Elizabeth Taylor. Cartier designed a new necklace for the pearl, from diamond and ruby, to really show off it's beauty. Following Taylor's death, the pearl was auctioned again and now resides somewhere in Asia.
The Abernathy Pearl
This beautiful and near perfectly round freshwater pearl, was found in Scotland in a mussel in the River Tay. Nicknamed Little Willie, the pearl is about the size of a marble and weighs 11 carats. The pearl can be found on display at Cairncross Jewellers in Perthshire.
Anne Boleyn's Pearls
The doomed 16th century English queen had a signature long pearl necklace that she can be seen wearing in many of her portraits. The single strand pearl necklace is further embellished with a gold letter B, under which hang three more pearls. A personalised pearl piece! Pearl studded gowns were also popular during this period, for the very wealthy and royalty.
A natural black pearl believed to have been found in South America, possible Venezuela or Equador. The high domed, button shaped pearl weighs 6.53 carats and has fabulous, rainbow coloured overtones known in the trade as 'peacock'. The black pigment comes from the mantle of the oyster, and colours the nacre so. This pearl is now owned by a pearl company in USA.
Antique Pearl Jewellery
We frequently come across beautiful antique and vintage pearl jewellery, in particular vintage gold bangles studded with pearls, and pendants and brooches with a central gemstone surrounded by small blister pearls. We do always try and hunt down lovely antique pearl rings too, and in particular we look out for pearls with that beautiful lustre you can gaze at for hours on end! You can see the current pearl pieces at the top of this page.