All About Pearls
The pearl is known as the Queen of Gems. Throughout history a natural pearl necklace comprised of matched pearls was the most expensive jewelry in the world. Before the creation of cultured pearls in the early 1900s, natural pearls were so rare and expensive that they were reserved almost exclusively for the nobility and very rich.
Pearls, in fact, played the pivotal role at the most celebrated banquet in literature. To convince Rome that Egypt possessed a heritage and wealth that put it above conquest, Cleopatra wagered Marc Antony she could give the most expensive dinner in history. The Roman reclined as the queen sat with an empty plate and a goblet of wine (or vinegar). She crushed one large pearl of a pair of earrings, dissolved it in the liquid, then drank it down. Astonished, Antony declined his dinner -- the matching pearl -- and admitted she had won. Pliny, the world's first gemologist, writes in his famous Natural History that the two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces, or 1,875,000 ounces of fine silver ($24,675,000.00 with silver at today's prices).
Typical pearl colors are white, cream, yellow, pink, silver, or black. A pearl can also have a hint of secondary color, or overtone, which is seen when light reflects off the pearl surface. For example, a pearl strand may appear white, but when examined more closely, a pink overtone may become apparent.
Pearls produce an intense, deep shine called luster. This effect is created when light reflects off the many layers of tiny calcium carbonate crystals that compose the pearl. This substance is called nacre.
Because pearls are natural organic substances, they can occur in a wide variety of shapes, many of which are quite unique and interesting. The round pearls you most commonly see are by no means the only shape in which pearls are found. Perfectly round pearls are actually quite rare. This is because the eventual shape of the pearl is determined by a number of highly variable factors which occur inside the oyster as the pearl is developing. For example, the pearl often assumes the same shape as its nucleus (the irritant which was placed inside the oyster to initiate the formation of the pearl). If the nucleus is not perfectly round, the resulting pearl is likely to reflect this irregularity. In addition, the pearl's positioning within the oyster also plays a role in determining its shape.
Within the category of shapes Pearls are divided into three broad categories, based on their overall characteristics:
- Spherical shapes are perfectly round or nearly round. They are the "classic" pearl shape that is most familiar.
- Symmetrical shapes are are balanced and regular. If you sliced this pearl in half, each half would be a mirror-image of the other half.
- Baroque shapes are irregular or abstract. They are non-symmetrical in nature.
Within these three broad categories, pearls are classified into seven basic shapes:
- Round: Round pearls are perfectly spherical -- the shape most people think of when they think of a pearl. Because of their relative rarity and "classic" nature, they are highly desirable. Round pearls fall into the spherical category.
- Near-round: These pearls are not perfectly round. Instead, they are slightly flattened or elongated, rather than being a perfect sphere. Nonetheless, they are so nearly perfect that they, too, are classified as spherical.
- Oval: These pearls are shaped like an oval -- narrower at the ends than they are in the center. Ovals are categorized as a symmetrical shape.
- Button: Button pearls are flattened to some degree, making them resemble a button or perhaps a disk rather than a perfect sphere. These pearls are often used in earrings, where the flattened side can be attached to the setting. Buttons are also categorized as symmetrical.
- Drop: Drop pearls are pear- or teardrop-shaped. The drop can either be "long" or "short," depending on its proportions. These pearls make attractive earrings or pendants. This is also a symmetrical shape.
- Semi-baroque: These pearls are slightly irregular in their shape. For example, a pearl which might otherwise be considered an oval, button, or drop pearl, but which is not symmetrical in nature, would be considered semi-baroque. Semi-baroque pearls fall into the baroque category of shapes.
- Baroque: This is a pearl which is both non-symmetrical and irregular in shape. The baroque pearl can be purely abstract in its shape, or it can resemble a cross, stick, or some other shape. Baroque pearls fall into the baroque category.
As an oyster creates a pearl, the layers of nacre do not always adhere smoothly. Sometimes spots and bubbles can appear in the layering process. Pearls with the smoothest surfaces are the highest-quality, most sought-after pearls. The surface of a pearl is judged by how many marks are visible in the nacre. These imperfections can be small and unnoticeable or quite large and distinct.
Size is an important value factor. Certain sizes that are in fashion demand, may command premium prices. Supply and demand are the over-riding factors. Round pearls are measured according to their diameter, while baroque pearls are measured by their length and width. Size is determined by diameter and expressed in millimeters, since pearls are sold by the millimeter. A pearl's size doesn't necessarily indicate its quality, but it most certainly does affect its price. All things considered, the larger the pearl, the higher its value.