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All About Pearls

Updated: May 30, 2021

Pearls make wonderful jewellery and have fascinated us for centuries. Below is a list of interesting information about these wonderful gems.

The see all Pearl earrings on this site, click here or on any of the images on this page.

1 – The only gem formed by a living creature.

Most gemstones are geological and form deep undergrown. Others such as Amber, Jet or Sea Bamboo are organic in origin, but Pearls are the only gemstone formed by living creatures. Pearls are grown by molluscs to protect themselves if a foreign object becomes embedded in their flesh; not all molluscs can grow pearls though. Of around 85,000 different mollusc species, only 20 can grow pearls suitable for use in jewellery.

2 – Natural Pearls are extremely rare.

Before pearls were farmed, they used to be vanishingly rare. Only around 1 in 10,000 individual molluscs will form a pearl naturally, which meant that it would take many thousands of molluscs to produce enough pearls to make a necklace.

3 – Dangerous.

Prior to the 1890s, the knowledge of how to cultivate pearls did not exist; therefore all Pearls had to be collected by pearl divers. These were highly skilled people who could hold their breath for a very long time as they dived in search of natural pearls. This was not a cushy job though and it is thought that up to 50% of all pearl divers died as a result of their efforts.

4 – Pearls have a very long history.

People have treasured pearls for many thousands of years. There are Ancient Egyptian pearl artefacts, which are around 5000 years old and pearls are mentioned in Chinese texts dating back 4500 years. The earliest evidence that our ancestors valued pearls, comes from a 7500 year old burial ground in what is now the United Arab Emirates.

5 – Cultivation of pearls.

By the late 19th Century, over-hunting and increasingly polluted seas had lead to a steep decline in the population of molluscs and naturally occurring pearls were starting to become increasingly rare. A solution to this was discovered when an Englishman living in Australia, William Saville Kent, perfected the method of cultivating pearls artificially. The Japanese took this discovery and soon perfected the art of farming pearls. Nowadays, 99% of the World's pearls are cultured and only 1% gathered from the sea in the traditional way.

6 – Freshwater Pearls.

Freshwater Pearls have been known about for thousands of years, but the technique of farming them was not fully developed until the 1970s. The great advantage of freshwater over sea water, is that it is much cheaper to produce pearls in freshwater. Freshwater mussels might be expected to produce up to 40 pearls at one time, whereas a sea mollusc might only produce 1 or 2 pearls.

7 – Molluscs are not killed to harvest pearls.

Contrary to what many might think, the molluscs are not harmed when the pearls are gathered. In fact, the older a mollusc is, the greater the number and quality of the pearls it produces. So pearl farmers have learned how to gather pearls without doing harm to the creature itself.

8 – The largest and most expensive pearl in history.

The largest and most expensive pearl ever, was discovered by a fisherman in the Philippines. Not knowing the value of this pearl, the fisherman stored it under his bed for several years for good luck. The monster pearl eventually came to light. Measuring 26 inches and weighing a whopping 75 pounds, it is a most ugly specimen but has been valued at around $100 million!

9 – The most famous pearl in the World.

Although not the biggest, the World’s most famous pearl is called “La Peregrina”, which means “The Pilgrim” in Spanish. It was discovered somewhere in the Americas at the end of the 15th century. Over the centuries, it has been owned by many members of the Spanish Royal Family and for a time it was in the possession of Mary I (Bloody Mary). It was also owned by Napoleon III for France. Its last famous owner was the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was given it by Richard Burton who purchased it for £37,000.

10 – Not for the commoners.

Due to the high costs of pearls, there have been times when only certain people were permitted to own them. Julius Caesar decreed that only the nobility were allowed to wear and own pearls in Ancient Rome. It was the same in Elizabethan England, where pearls could only be worn by the Royal family or members of the aristocracy.

11 – Cleo the show off.

In legend, the last Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, decided to impress her Roman guests by calling for a fabulous pearl, dissolving it in vinegar and then drinking it to show off the wealth of Egypt. This must have been the most expensive drink in history and also demonstrates the hardiness of Cleo’s stomach. Showing off the wealth of Egypt was probably a bad move on Cleo’s part, as the Romans decided Egypt was worth conquering and seized the place in 30 BCE.

12 – Happy birthday.

Traditionally, Pearl is considered the birthstone for the month of June.

13 – Happy anniversary.

A thirtieth wedding anniversary is known as a Pearl Anniversary - A bit better than silver, not quite as good as gold!

14 – It takes all sorts.

Round is what we tend to think of when we think of Pearls, but Pearls come in all sorts of shapes. These include round, teardrop, potato, rice, baroque and even blister and freeform.

15 – Each pearl is unique.

Due to the nature of how Pearls are formed, and the fact that they are not shaped by us, no two Pearls can ever be exactly the same. Even very high quality Pearls which look the same will have slight differences and variations, which make each pearl as individual and unique as a human fingerprint.

16 – Colours.

We also tend to think of the colour white when we think of Pearls, but there is a great diversity of colours Pearls can be including gold, black and blue. The final colour of the Pearl is determined by the colour of the inside of the mollusc’s shell it is forming in.

17 – Your pearls can die!

If not worn for a long period of time, your Pearls can die…… or at least lose their sheen and lustre.

18 – Not all pearls make the cut.

Of all the Pearls produced, not all are good enough to be used in jewellery making. Many of these Pearls get ground up and used in the making of cosmetics.

19 – How to tell if your pearls are genuine.

Throughout much of the 20th Century much Pearl jewellery was actually make of coated glass beads as they were cheaper and more regularly shaped than genuine Pearls. The way to tell if the Pearls are real is to gently rub them on the front of your teeth. If they rub smoothly then they are likely to be made of coated glass. If they feel gritty, then they are probably real Pearls. However, testing Pearls this way is no longer an option due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

20 – Caring for your pearls.

Pearls are not very hard or durable, so they need to be treated with a little respect. The first thing to do is to make sure you wear them once in a while to ensure they keep their lustre. If you want to keep them clean, just wipe them with a damp cloth and certainly don’t dip them in silver cleaning solution. Never wear your Pearls in the shower or bath, as they won’t like being covered with soap or shampoo. Try to avoid getting them covered with perfume or cosmetics if possible.

21 – What do pearls mean.

Over the centuries Pearls have been associated with purity, loyalty and clarity. Pearls have also traditionally been associated with wisdom, hence the phrase, “pearls of wisdom”.

I hope you have found my little pearls of wisdom interesting. Feel free to check my pearl earrings here.

Fortunaearrings is a handmade jewellery store featuring a wide range of unique earrings made of gemstones and sterling silver. As well as gemstone earrings which will appeal to the gemstone collector, you will also find a range of earrings made of Venetian glass lampworked at my Devon workshop. See my full handmade jewellery portfolio by clicking the shop link at the top of this page.

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