I’ve spent some time recently researching freshwater pearls, and was simply amazed at how much I didn’t know.
When I was a kid, as far as I knew there were ‘real’ pearls (which none of us had ever seen) and plastic pearls, which we all had, usually from Woolworths :-)
I was aware that there were cultured pearls but didn’t really know much about it, and my mum had a ‘majorca’ pearl necklace that was lost somehow with much drama ....
Its unlikely most of us will ever own natural pearls – very little pearl diving is done these days as it is very inefficient and had a huge environmental impact. Most natural pearls are now vintage.
Pearls come in two main categories – saltwater and freshwater. The saltwater pearl comes from oysters, and freshwater from mussels. What we traditionally think of as a ‘pearl’ is from the saltwater oyster, but interestingly much prized in the past was the Scottish river pearl. Sadly the pearl mussel is now extremely endangered and there are strict controls on the use of these pearls.
There are differences between the method of culturing pearls in oysters and mussels, which is pretty technical and probably more detail than you need or want to know. Basically a pearl is formed by a foreign body of some kind getting trapped inside the shell, and the mollusk covers it in an iridescent substance called ‘nacre’.
In a natural pearl this is something that enters the shell on its own, and in cultured pearls it is placed into the shell by humans.
Saltwater cultured pearls .... Akoya Pearls – grown mainly off the coast of Japan, these are the classic style of pearl, round, usually white and with intense lustre.
Tahitian Pearls – from French Polynesia, these are dark pearls and usually large. They come in different shapes and colours, and are very beautiful.
South Sea Pearls – mainly from the Philippines and Australia, these are the largest saltwater cultured pearls. Stunning, and probably out of the budget range of most of us.
And here we come to what I consider the star of the show – cultured freshwater pearls.
The vast majority of freshwater pearls now are grown in China. Improvements in cultivation methods in recent years mean a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours are now available at very reasonable prices.
I ordered some recently for the flower girls at a friend’s wedding, and was simply amazed at how nice they were.
Watch this space, pearls might be arriving in the store soon .....