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Jewellery Advice and Knowledge Jewellery Advice and Knowledge

Jewellery Advice and Knowledge Jewellery Advice and Knowledge

Natural vs cultured pearls and how to care for them Natural vs cultured pearls and how to care for them

Pearls have long been associated with love and luxury. Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in 1485 depicting the goddess of love, emerging from the sea within a shell, like a pearl, as love personified. However the fascination with pearls has an ancient history, having been used as gifts for royalty in both Chinese and Persian cultures, c. 2400BC. According to legend, Cleopatra crushed a pearl into her water before drinking it, to demonstrate to Marc Anthony the extent of her wealth and power. Indeed, from about 1400, noble and royal ladies were draped in strings of pearls, and wearing dresses lined with them. Pearls were deemed more rare, and more expensive than diamonds even. Today, thanks to the invention of cultured pearls, pearls are no longer restricted to the rich, royal and noble, and remain a timeless item within any ladies jewellery box.  


The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1485-6.

How are they formed?

Pearls are formed by a happy accident; as a small piece of shell or parasite gets trapped within the shell of a live oyster. The oyster then, in order to protect itself against this intruder, secretes a substance which becomes the nacre of the pearl, developing in layers, and getting larger over time. This occurrence is incredibly rare and as such natural pearls were, and still are, incredibly expensive. Cartier famously took part in a deal in the mid-1910’s whereby they received their 5th Avenue New York mansion in exchange for a double row pearl necklace of 55 and 73 natural south sea pearls, deemed to be the most expensive pearl necklace in the world at the time. To create a single row of natural pearls may even take years to source enough pearls to match in colour and size. Cartier ended up doing extremely well in this deal, as only a few years later cultured pearls flooded the market and set the price for natural pearls plunging. 

Cartier 5th Avenue Mansion

What’s the difference between natural and cultured pearls?

The process is the same; except that in a natural pearl, the small piece of shell or parasite enters the shell as a fluke of nature. A cultured pearl does not happen at the hands of nature; instead the rogue element is physically and deliberately inserted into the shell to get the process started. The fact that the occurrence of a natural pearl is still vastly more rare than a cultured pearl means that there is still a huge discrepancy between their values.

A Japanese gentleman named Kokichi Mikimoto developed the process for cultured pearls in 1893, and by 1935 there were 350 pearl farms in Japan. From this point onwards, pearls became much more attainable for a much wider portion of the market. Although critics deemed these ‘fake pearls’, cultured pearls have the exact same chemical and physical properties as a natural pearl. 

What are the main types of pearls?

  • Freshwater cultured pearls: these are cultivated primarily in china, and the oyster can produce multiple pearls simultaneously. As there are more of these pearls available on the market, these are generally the most affordable. Only approx. 2% of freshwater pearls are round, and are often slightly irregular in shape. They may be found in white, yellow, cream, pink or lavender tones. 

  • Saltwater cultured pearls: for example, Akoya pearls, as developed by Mikimoto in the late 19th century. These are typically high quality, round, with a characteristically bright and mirror-like lustre in white, cream pinkish tones with a rose or silver overtone. The average size is 6-8mm and examples larger than 10mm are extremely rare. 

  • Tahitian Pearls: these are saltwater pearls found in French polynesia and are well known for their darkened appearance in shades of purple, pink, green and grey. They are a very dramatic style of pearl and are larger than Akoya, with the average sizes being between 9 and 14mm. Tahitian pearls generally have an excellent lustre, and almost a metallic sheen.

  • South Sea pearls: these are the most highly prized cultured pearls. Found in the warm waters of Australia, Philippines, Indonesia and Burma. Their average size is 13mm, however may be between 8 and 20mm. South sea pearls have a thick nacre and an extremely unique, glowy lustre. They may be found in white, cream, silver and golden tones with pink, green and even blue overtones. 

  • Natural pearls: natural pearls may be saltwater or freshwater, and have been found in most areas of the globe at some stage or another. Only approximately 1 in every 10,000 oysters will produce a pearl, so they are incredibly rare. They may be found in a range of sizes and colours, but a natural pearl has a much thicker nacre than a cultured pearl, which can be identified by x-ray. 

  • Baroque pearls: these are irregular shaped pearls, sometimes described as lumpy, ovoid or curved. Most cultured freshwater pearls are baroque shaped, but not all baroque pearls are cultured freshwater pearls. 


How to care for your pearls

Pearls are delicate, and require careful attention to ensure that they do not lose their lustre. Here are some tips on how to best look after your pearls and ensure that their lustre lasts:

  1. Pearls are vulnerable to acids and alkalis, so they should not be sprayed with beauty products such as perfume, hairspray and come into contact with cosmetic products. Ideally, you should apply your pearls as the finishing touch to your look!

  2. You may want to wipe down your pearls after wearing - they will come into contact with the perspiration and any body lotions or products you are wearing, and over time this can harm the pearl’s lustre. 

  3. There is a saying that pearls ‘want to be worn’ and this is true: if they are kept in boxes for long periods of time they can dehydrate. 

  4. Pearl’s are pretty shock resistant, but they may scratch, so when storing it’s best to lay them flat so that they don’t come into contact with any other items of jewellery. 

  5. With pearl necklaces, if you don’t wear them often they may need restringing once a year. If the string becomes slightly stretched and loose, it may break. The string needs to remain taut. 

  6. You should absolutely avoid wearing pearl jewellery in water, as this can affect the lustre. If you have a pearl ring, it is likely that this is designed to be a dress ring and therefore not worn all the time. In a perfect world, you should remove the ring to wash your hands as the water and soaps will harm the lustre.

Whilst this may seem like a lot of faff, if you take good care of your pearls they really will last a lifetime! Take a look at some of our wonderful collection of pearl jewellery below:

 

    Pearls have long been associated with love and luxury. Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in 1485 depicting the goddess of love, emerging from the sea within a shell, like a pearl, as love personified. However the fascination with pearls has an ancient history, having been used as gifts for royalty in both Chinese and Persian cultures, c. 2400BC. According to legend, Cleopatra crushed a pearl into her water before drinking it, to demonstrate to Marc Anthony the extent of her wealth and power. Indeed, from about 1400, noble and royal ladies were draped in strings of pearls, and wearing dresses lined with them. Pearls were deemed more rare, and more expensive than diamonds even. Today, thanks to the invention of cultured pearls, pearls are no longer restricted to the rich, royal and noble, and remain a timeless item within any ladies jewellery box.  


    The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1485-6.

    How are they formed?

    Pearls are formed by a happy accident; as a small piece of shell or parasite gets trapped within the shell of a live oyster. The oyster then, in order to protect itself against this intruder, secretes a substance which becomes the nacre of the pearl, developing in layers, and getting larger over time. This occurrence is incredibly rare and as such natural pearls were, and still are, incredibly expensive. Cartier famously took part in a deal in the mid-1910’s whereby they received their 5th Avenue New York mansion in exchange for a double row pearl necklace of 55 and 73 natural south sea pearls, deemed to be the most expensive pearl necklace in the world at the time. To create a single row of natural pearls may even take years to source enough pearls to match in colour and size. Cartier ended up doing extremely well in this deal, as only a few years later cultured pearls flooded the market and set the price for natural pearls plunging. 

    Cartier 5th Avenue Mansion

    What’s the difference between natural and cultured pearls?

    The process is the same; except that in a natural pearl, the small piece of shell or parasite enters the shell as a fluke of nature. A cultured pearl does not happen at the hands of nature; instead the rogue element is physically and deliberately inserted into the shell to get the process started. The fact that the occurrence of a natural pearl is still vastly more rare than a cultured pearl means that there is still a huge discrepancy between their values.

    A Japanese gentleman named Kokichi Mikimoto developed the process for cultured pearls in 1893, and by 1935 there were 350 pearl farms in Japan. From this point onwards, pearls became much more attainable for a much wider portion of the market. Although critics deemed these ‘fake pearls’, cultured pearls have the exact same chemical and physical properties as a natural pearl. 

    What are the main types of pearls?

    • Freshwater cultured pearls: these are cultivated primarily in china, and the oyster can produce multiple pearls simultaneously. As there are more of these pearls available on the market, these are generally the most affordable. Only approx. 2% of freshwater pearls are round, and are often slightly irregular in shape. They may be found in white, yellow, cream, pink or lavender tones. 

    • Saltwater cultured pearls: for example, Akoya pearls, as developed by Mikimoto in the late 19th century. These are typically high quality, round, with a characteristically bright and mirror-like lustre in white, cream pinkish tones with a rose or silver overtone. The average size is 6-8mm and examples larger than 10mm are extremely rare. 

    • Tahitian Pearls: these are saltwater pearls found in French polynesia and are well known for their darkened appearance in shades of purple, pink, green and grey. They are a very dramatic style of pearl and are larger than Akoya, with the average sizes being between 9 and 14mm. Tahitian pearls generally have an excellent lustre, and almost a metallic sheen.

    • South Sea pearls: these are the most highly prized cultured pearls. Found in the warm waters of Australia, Philippines, Indonesia and Burma. Their average size is 13mm, however may be between 8 and 20mm. South sea pearls have a thick nacre and an extremely unique, glowy lustre. They may be found in white, cream, silver and golden tones with pink, green and even blue overtones. 

    • Natural pearls: natural pearls may be saltwater or freshwater, and have been found in most areas of the globe at some stage or another. Only approximately 1 in every 10,000 oysters will produce a pearl, so they are incredibly rare. They may be found in a range of sizes and colours, but a natural pearl has a much thicker nacre than a cultured pearl, which can be identified by x-ray. 

    • Baroque pearls: these are irregular shaped pearls, sometimes described as lumpy, ovoid or curved. Most cultured freshwater pearls are baroque shaped, but not all baroque pearls are cultured freshwater pearls. 


    How to care for your pearls

    Pearls are delicate, and require careful attention to ensure that they do not lose their lustre. Here are some tips on how to best look after your pearls and ensure that their lustre lasts:

    1. Pearls are vulnerable to acids and alkalis, so they should not be sprayed with beauty products such as perfume, hairspray and come into contact with cosmetic products. Ideally, you should apply your pearls as the finishing touch to your look!

    2. You may want to wipe down your pearls after wearing - they will come into contact with the perspiration and any body lotions or products you are wearing, and over time this can harm the pearl’s lustre. 

    3. There is a saying that pearls ‘want to be worn’ and this is true: if they are kept in boxes for long periods of time they can dehydrate. 

    4. Pearl’s are pretty shock resistant, but they may scratch, so when storing it’s best to lay them flat so that they don’t come into contact with any other items of jewellery. 

    5. With pearl necklaces, if you don’t wear them often they may need restringing once a year. If the string becomes slightly stretched and loose, it may break. The string needs to remain taut. 

    6. You should absolutely avoid wearing pearl jewellery in water, as this can affect the lustre. If you have a pearl ring, it is likely that this is designed to be a dress ring and therefore not worn all the time. In a perfect world, you should remove the ring to wash your hands as the water and soaps will harm the lustre.

    Whilst this may seem like a lot of faff, if you take good care of your pearls they really will last a lifetime! Take a look at some of our wonderful collection of pearl jewellery below:

     

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