Updated: Jun 17, 2020
As Jackie Kennedy famously said, “Pearls are always appropriate.” That’s why you see them adoring necklaces, pendants, bracelets, rings and earrings. Often thought of as glistening white, perfectly round and natural, that is actually the exception. Pearls come in every hue imaginable, in shapes ranging from buttons to ovals and 99% of them are cultured.
It’s quite ironic that one of the world’s most popular gemstones, one that symbolizes purity and loyalty, begins life as a reaction to an intruder. The oyster secrets layer upon layer of nacre – a form of calcium carbonate – to form what we ultimately know as the birthstone of June – the pearl. The smallest pearl weighs a fraction of a gram while a decade ago a Philippine fisherman discovered an amazing 74-pounder.
Natural pearls are created with no human help – just an irritated mollusk repelling an enemy. Man’s hands set the stage for cultured pearls when they insert a tissue graft into an oyster. The process was invented by the Japanese in the late 1890’s and lead to today’s two primary types of cultured pearls: freshwater and saltwater.
Freshwater pearls are harvested in lakes and ponds, often with multiple pearls per shell. Saltwater pearls grow in bays, inlets and atolls and are the more sought after style. Akoya pearls come from the oyster of the same name and are the most abundant with the longest history. Exotic Tahitians come from the Black-lip oyster but the pearls can be white, green, blues as well as black. South Sea pearls grown inside the silver and gold-lipped oysters in waters surrounding Australia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines.
Oyster farming is sustainable, too. Producers use surgical instruments to harvest the pearls and as oysters typically produce better pearls as they age, they are well attended while thriving in some the world’s most beautiful waters.