Agape Pearls



How are pearls made?
Pearls are different than other gemstones because they are the only gemstones grown inside a living organism - oysters or mollusks. There are approximately 8,000 different species of bi-valve mollusks, of which only about 20 are capable of consistently producing pearls.

Pearls are formed when some type of foreign substance invades the shell of the mollusk and enters the soft mantle tissue. This happens naturally but the pearls are usually not very good quality. The culturing process introduces the irritation to ensure production of pearls consistently. The body of the mollusk secretes nacre (a calcium-like substance) in response to the irritation. The nacre surrounds the irritant and builds up in layers which ultimately forms a pearl. The irritant, in cultured pearls, is typically mantle tissue from a donor mollusk (not sand which is the common belief). The nacre builds up in layers, as it surrounds the irritant to protect the mollusk, and after a few years, this build up of nacre forms a pearl. This process generally takes from three to five years and each mollusk can produce as many as 35 pearls at one time.
The layers of nacre tend to maintain the shape of the original irritant; therefore, most naturally occurring pearls are irregular in shape. Cultured pearls develop around an embedded irritant and the pearl will assume the shape of the irritant. Thus, unusual shapes are typically cultured. Pearls can be developed in the shape of hearts, crosses, squares and coin shapes. Cultured pearls are also available in a wide variety of natural colors – mostly pastels, though. Peacock pearls, generally in darker shades of blue and purple, result from iron in the water where the pearls are being cultured. Cultured pearls are also less expensive than saltwater or natural pearls because more pearls can be cultured in a single mollusk in a freshwater farm than in the saltwater farms. The farms, many found in the Zhejiang region on the Changjiang delta in southern China, utilize ponds, lakes and rivers to produce the pearls. The Zhejiang coastal province is known as “the hometown of pearl." Another interesting difference that sets cultured freshwater pearls apart from saltwater or natural pearls is that they are almost entirely solid nacre, therefore they are also quite durable, resisting chipping, wear, and degeneration. Culturing pearls is not a new invention – the Chinese have been culturing mabe pearls (half pearls used for jewelry) since the 13th century. In fact, the first record mentioning pearls in China was from 2206 BC.

What makes one pearl more valuable (and more expensive) than another?
One quality of pearls really sets them apart from other gemstones – their unique inner glow which is usually referred to as the pearl’s luster. The luster of the pearl depends upon the reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light from the translucent layers of nacre. For a pearl to have excellent luster, the layers must be very thin and numerous. The iridescence that pearls display is caused by the overlapping of successive layers, which breaks up light falling on the surface.

The value of pearls in jewelry is determined by a combination of the luster, color, size, lack of surface flaw, and shape. In other words, the more round the pearl, the more valuable it is in the current pearl market. A larger pearl – one that is larger than 7-8mm - will also increase the value substantially. Finally, a large round pearl with few flaws will generally be very expensive. However, among those attributes, luster is the most important factor in determining the quality of the pearl, according to most jewelers.

How can you tell the difference between real pearls and imitation pearls?
Natural and cultured pearls can be distinguished from imitation pearls by rubbing the pearl against the surface of a front tooth. Imitation pearls are completely smooth, but natural and cultured pearls are composed of nacre platelets, which feel slightly gritty. A word of caution is necessary, though. Putting pearls in your mouth to rub against your teeth without permission of the vendor is not a good idea. This happens at our craft shows frequently and it is very unsanitary. The only time it would ever be appropriate to put pearls in your mouth is when you own them and you are sure that no one else has touched them recently. Additionally, it is rude to do to the vendor. Another method involves rubbing two of the pearls together. They will create “pearl dust” if they are real. If they are imitation, nothing will happen. Finally, one easy way to distinguish imitation pearls from real pearls is by their weight. Natural and cultured pearls are solid nacre – or solid calcium. Therefore, they are relatively heavy in comparison to glass pearls which are hollow.

Why is it important to purchase hand-knotted pearl jewelry?
Knotting the strand between each pearl prevents all of the pearls from falling off the strand in the event the strand breaks. Also, knotting prevents the pearls from rubbing against one another and causing damage. Additionally, pearl necklaces and bracelets will hang more aesthetically when knotted.

What shapes and colors do pearls come in?
Pearls come in eight basic shapes: round, semi-round, button, drop, pear, oval, baroque, and circled. Perfectly round pearls are the rarest and most valuable shape. Semi-rounds are also used in necklaces or in pieces where the shape of the pearl can be disguised to look like it is a perfectly round pearl. Button pearls are like a slightly flattened round pearl and can also make a necklace; however, they are more often used in single pendants or earrings where the back half of the pearl is covered, making it look like a larger, more round pearl. Biwa pearls are long and somewhat needle-like shaped and are sometimes called “stick pearls”. They make for very interesting jewelry. Finally, the coin-shaped pearls are becoming very popular. Pearls can be grown in unusual shapes also. Agape Pearls carries heart shaped pearls and star shaped pearls (earring styles) in addition to the more recognized shapes.

Pear-shaped pearls are sometimes referred to as teardrop pearls and are most often seen in earrings, pendants, or as a center pearl in a necklace. Baroque pearls have a different appeal to them than more standard shapes because they are often highly irregular and make unique and interesting shapes. They are also commonly seen in necklaces. Circled pearls are characterized by concentric ridges, or rings, around the body of the pearl. Many people associate the concentric circles on pearls as indicating that they are freshwater pearls. However, saltwater pearls can also bear these same circles.

The natural colors that are found in freshwater pearls include white, cream, pale blue, gray, peach, lavendar/pink, and peacock. Also, many pearls are dyed to match fashion trends: chocolate brown, cranberry red, evergreen, electric blue, orange, and purple and many iridescent colors, too. The colors are typically colorfast because pearls are made of a calcium-like substance which is highly absorbent. The dye soaks into and completely through the pearl.

What are “black pearls” and why are they so expensive?
Black pearls, frequently referred to as Black Tahitian Pearls, are highly valued because of their rarity; the culturing process for them generally results in one pearl per mollusk. Before the days of cultured pearls, black pearls were rare and highly valued for the simple reason that white pearl oysters rarely produced naturally black pearls, and black pearl oysters rarely produced any natural pearls at all.

Since the development of pearl culture technology, the black pearl oyster found in Tahiti and many other Pacific Island areas has been extensively used for producing cultured pearls. The rarity of the black cultured pearl is now a "comparative" issue. The black cultured pearl is rare when compared to Chinese freshwater cultured pearls, and Japanese and Chinese akoya cultured pearls, and is more valuable than these pearls. However, it is more abundant than the South Sea pearl, which is more valuable than the black cultured pearl.

What are “South Sea pearls”?
In the past couple of decades, cultured pearls have been produced using larger oysters in the South Pacific and in the Indian Ocean. The mollusk that produces these pearls is huge in comparison to other mollusks that are used in freshwater pearl farms. For example, the mollusk used in the South Pacific is roughly the size of a dinner plate where the mollusk used to produce Chinese pearls is about the size of an adult human palm. It is common to see South Sea pearls which are 14mm or even larger. They are generally sold individually because they are so expensive. Although it is possible for Agape Pearls to purchase South Sea pearls, it would only be by special order because of the extreme expense associated with them.

What are “Baroque pearls”?
Baroque pearls are pearls that have an irregular shape. They can be lumpy or resemble potatoes. Quality baroque pearls typically have high luster, meaning that they have a deep shine to them that makes them very beautiful. Many American women prefer baroque pearls over perfectly-round pearls because of the character and lack of symmetry.

What is a Mabe pearl?
A mabe pearl is a half pearl which is grown against the inside of the mollusk's shell, rather than within its tissue. Cultured mabe pearls are grown intentionally, by using a hemispheric nucleus, rather than a round one. The pearl then develops in a hemispheric form, with a flat back. Once the mabe pearl has grown to a very large size, it is cut out of the shell and the back of the pearl is then capped with a piece of mother-of-pearl to complete the mabe pearl. Cultured mabes are used for such things as rings and earrings, rather than for stringing on necklaces. They tend to be very beautiful with high luster and orient, but are priced much lower than round pearls.