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Let’s Talk Pearls: Where do Pearls come from?

Let's talk pearls; the stories, myths, and misconceptions surrounding these 'gems of the sea'. Find out everything you need to know about your pearl jewellery.

3 March 2021 EDITOR - ERNEST JONES

Elegant, classic, and oozing timeless charm and glamour, pearls stand alone as the only precious gem produced by a living creature. True natural beauties, they don't even require any further polishing, cutting, or shaping. From an exquisite pearl necklace to sophisticated pearl earrings, with their serene and ever-stylish appearance, it’s little wonder that pearl jewellery has been a coveted treasure for many thousands of years.

In this article, we'll explore some of the fascinating stories, myths, and misconceptions, surrounding these 'gems of the sea'. We'll also tackle frequently asked questions such as ‘how do oysters make pearls?’, ‘what are cultured pearls?’, and ‘where are pearls found?’

What are pearls?

Known for their stunning good looks and vintage feel, pearls have long been a jewellery collection staple. Whilst historically they were saved for formal events, over time they have shed their prim and proper reputation and are an increasingly popular choice for everyday accessorising. So, whether you’re looking to add the perfect finishing touch to a special occasion outfit, soften an edgy look with a feminine necklace, or add a touch of glamour to even the most casual of daytime attire, the versatility of pearls makes them the ideal option.

From the fact that each pearl is one-of-a-kind to how environmentally sustainable they are, there is a lot to love about these precious gems. The surprising story of how they come to form in molluscs, such as oysters in saltwater and mussels in freshwater, is another of pearls biggest appeals. It all begins when a foreign substance becomes trapped between the mantle, or membrane, of a mollusc and its shell. The mollusc then releases an iridescent substance called nacre, which is more commonly known as mother-of-pearl, that forms a protective layer. Over time, often several years, thousands of layers of nacre will create the astounding natural beauty that is a pearl. The greater the number of layers, the larger the pearl will be.

The colour of a pearl can be influenced by a few factors, such as water conditions or the mollusc’s genetics. White tends to be thought of as the traditional colour of pearls, but they come in various shades and dazzling hues, from Tahitian 'black' pearls to highly sought-after blue gems from the South Seas. You'll also find shades of yellow, gold, pink, and even chocolate tones. Available in a wide range of shapes, styles, coordinating metals, and in both modern and traditional designs, you’ll be sure to find the perfect piece of pearl jewellery to suit your style.

What do pearls symbolise?

Different cultures have treasured pearls for thousands of years, and so many intriguing myths and meanings are attached to them. For example, in Ancient Rome, they were prized as the ultimate status symbol. In Japan, pearls were historically considered to be formed from a mermaid’s tears, whereas ancient Greeks believed them to be ‘tears of the gods’. Roman historians even thought that Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain was, in part, due to pearl rich rivers from which he could add to his prized collection. Pearls have long been considered traditional wedding day jewellery in Asia because they are thought to symbolise fertility, whereas the Christian faith considers pearls to symbolise purity.

In the UK, pearls have always been a popular milestone gift, such as for a big birthday, 30th wedding anniversary, or graduation. Their classic, timeless style means they’ll be treasured forever, providing years of enjoyment before often becoming an heirloom that is passed down to other generations. Incredibly sentimental and packed with symbolism – it’s little wonder pearls are universally adored.

Where are pearls found?

Rich saltwater oyster beds were initially discovered along the coasts of India, Sri Lanka, Japan, and the Arabian Gulf. However, the incredibly high value of pearls drove European explorers far and wide, and substantial discoveries followed in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America. The abundance of freshwater pearls found in North America were quickly shipped back to Europe and Asia in ever-increasing quantities. Discovering pearls was a real hit and miss affair, and divers searching for these rare and precious gems often paid the ultimate price.

During the 19th century, overfishing and pollution eventually took their toll. Today, natural pearls are scarce and command an exorbitant price, but modern, sustainable, and ethical farming has allowed these beautiful gems to continue to be formed.

What are freshwater pearls?

There is a general misconception that pearls can only be found in salt water, which has never been the case. And, as their name suggests, freshwater pearls are found in bodies of fresh water such as lakes, ponds, and rivers. Thousands of years ago, freshwater pearls were found in freshwater lakes and rivers in China. Freshwater pearls were also harvested from the Mississippi and Tennessee basins. Closer to home, Scotland was known to produce river pearls, including the famous 'Abernathy' pearl discovered in 1967. Other than the type of water they’re found in, the other difference is the host mollusc, so oysters in saltwater and mussels in freshwater. The value and appearance of a natural pearl shows little variation between fresh and saltwater.

What are cultured pearls?

Cultured pearls are created by human intervention, whereby the foreign substance that causes the mollusc to secrete nacre is a deliberate act rather than one that happens by chance. A common misconception, which couldn’t be further from the truth, is that cultured pearls are 'not real'. In fact, scientific evidence shows that natural and cultured pearls have exactly the same properties, and the only real difference is how they came to form. Therefore, you often see cultured pearls referred to as either saltwater or freshwater cultured pearls, depending on which water they were created in.

Pearls first started to be cultured and farmed over a hundred years ago in Japan. Today, among the most popular varieties of pearls are Akoya oyster pearls, a saltwater culture from Japan, China, and Vietnam. Freshwater mussel pearls, which come in a range of beautiful hues, are also incredibly popular and predominantly come from China.

Over time, the production of cultured pearls has become very sophisticated. To guarantee beauty, molluscs are carefully selected to ensure the highest pearl quality, with high lustre and uniform colour. The water quality is reflected in the quality of the pearl, so cultured pearls tend to be grown in clean, nutrient-rich waters. At a time where natural pearl stocks are still heavily depleted, the sustainability and eco-friendliness of cultured pearls and cultured freshwater pearl jewellery is widely acknowledged.

How can you tell if pearls are real?

When it comes to deciding whether a pearl is an imitation or the real deal, there are several tell-tale signs to look for. Firstly, the lustre of a natural or cultured pearl has real depth to it, giving the impression of being illuminated from the inside. In contrast, imitation pearls seem very uniform on the surface, but flat. Genuine pearls will naturally have very slight imperfections, but those made in factories tend to be blemish-free. The weight is another clue, with real pearls feeling heavier, but beware of glass imitations that feel quite similar.

If you already own the pearl, another way to determine whether a pearl is real or not is the tooth test. To do this, gently run the pearl across the flat surface of one of your teeth. A real pearl will feel slightly gritty, not unlike sandpaper, whereas an imitation pearl will feel smooth.

Ultimately, the most secure option is always to buy pearls, and other types of premium jewellery, from reputable jewellers such as Ernest Jones. That way, you can shop with total peace of mind, knowing that you are buying an ethical and high-quality item to be treasured forever.

How to clean pearls

With a little thought and some TLC, keeping your pearls in pristine condition is pretty straightforward. As they have a relatively soft surface, pearls should always be stored separately from other jewellery to avoid them being scratched by harder stones such as diamonds or other gems. Keeping pearls in individual soft cloth bags will offer even more protection. It’s also best to put your pearls on after you've applied perfume and make-up, as the acidity can, over time, cause some damage. It's also worth gently wiping them with a soft lint-free cloth after wearing to maintain that beautiful, deep lustre.

Discover pearl jewellery at Ernest Jones

At Ernest Jones, we're proud to offer a stunning range of pearl jewellery from leading designers and iconic brands such as Yoko London, Vera Wang, and Le Vian, as well as and our very own Ernest Jones Pearl Collection. So, whether you’re searching for a pearl jewellery set, pearl earrings, or the timeless classic that is an elegant pearl necklace, you’ll be sure to find the perfect piece in our impressive pearl jewellery collection.

If you have any questions about specific products or collections, or you’d like some help finding your dream item or the ideal gift for a loved one, book a complimentary virtual or in-store appointment with our expert and friendly team, who'll be happy to help.

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