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Wednesday, June 29, 2011


What's in a pearl? No, I mean quite literally, what is in a pearl? Virtually all pearls today are cultured, meaning that they have been started by man in some way. One hundred and fifty years ago there were only natural pearls. Divers would go into the water pull up a bunch of oysters and, if they were lucky, find a few pearls. But in the 1920's the world's major natural pearl producing regions were fished out and production of natural pearls basically came to a halt. As it happens, at about that same time, a couple of Japanese gentlemen happened to perfect a method to produce a pearl by inserting a bead nucleus into an oyster and having the growth form around it. These were the world's first salt water cultured pearls.

For quite some time the size was somewhat limited because the oysters that grew in the colder waters around Japan weren't large enough to produce much of anything over 8 mm round. However over some time it was recognized that in the South Seas there were much larger oysters available that could grow much larger pearls.

So what's in a cultured salt water pearl? Actually a round bead nucleus made out of shell makes up approximately 95% of the total pearl size. The actual pearl growth is usually quite thin (and got thinner over the years as production time was decreased due to demand). Consequently most of the pearl is actually starter material.

Natural freshwater pearls had been known about for quite some time too. Actually the Mississippi River produced a large number of pearls over the years, although overfishing reduced the yield dramatically over time. In the 1960's the Japanese however, also figured out a way to produce freshwater pearls by inserting mantle tissue from another mollusc into a mussell instead of a bead. Many of you probably remember (or still own) the rice shaped pearls that were produced in some rather large quantities over the years by the Japanese. I always enjoyed using freshwater pearls because they were unusual shapes making them far more interesting in rings, pendants and earrings than a traditional round pearl.

However as always time marches on and things change. Japanese labor got quite expensive. Some of the best freshwater pearl producing lakes in Japan got too polluted. So the Japanese exported their pearl expertise to China. China is a huge nation and they have a tendency to do things in a large way. Once they began producing freshwater pearls they began producing so many (and so cheaply) that they flooded the market, prices plummeted and quality suffered dramatically. In the meanwhile however, the Japanese salt water cultured pearl production of round pearls was falling rapidly.

So the freshwater producers saw a new area opening up and began to attempt to produce perfectly round freshwater pearls, which they achieved. Initially only available in very small sizes, over the years they boosted the size until they were able to produce perfectly round freshwater pearls in the same size range as the Japanese cultured pearls had been.

And then they began to look at other, alternative production methods, which brings us to the picture above (apologies as always---it's my own photo). The picture is of two strands of bead nucleated freshwater pearls I just purchased. In other words they are now putting round bead nuclei into freshwater mussels and producing pearls. Admittedly they are baroque (odd shaped) at the moment but it is pretty obvious where they are heading. Of course, I have always liked the odd shapes so these are working fine for me. But someday they will have perfectly round freshwater bead nucleated pearls and I'll have to begin the search for something else.

In the meantime, these two strands are very reasonably priced and way, way more interesting than those boring round pearls your grandmothers used to wear. Come on by and see them (or better yet send your significant other in with a credit card in hand)!

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