Ten Things You Didn't Know About Pearls
Posted: Aug 29 2014
Margaritas, Parasites and Hermaphrodites... No, it's not the aftermath of a crazy weekend, it's what you didn't know about Pearls!
1.Your pearls probably originated in the Mississippi River...
At least their core did… Cultured pearls are formed when a small sphere of mollusk shell, or “mother of pearl”, is inserted into an oyster by pearl farmers. The vast majority of these ‘seeds’ are taken from mussels that come from the Mississippi River in the U.S. – because they grow large, thick shells and the right size spheres can be formed from them.
So while your pearls were almost certainly grown in Tahiti, Australia, China or Japan, your pearl’s core is likely “made in the U.S.A.” after all!
2. Oysters Change Gender... Regularly...
Yeah, you read that right: Oysters flip-flop gender, often several times during their lifetime. Most commonly they start as “males” and end up as “females”… Interestingly, in a given community of oysters, the balance of male/female will typically be even: as some oysters ‘swap’ others will do so too in order to keep balance.
3. There's no such thing as a ‘round pearl’...
Most linguists agree that our word “pearl” is derived from the Latin “pirum” meaning “pear” or “pear-shaped”… That’s because until pearls were cultured in the late 19th century, the overwhelming majority of naturally-occurring pearls were anything but round. Most pearls were baroque or pear-shaped with round pearls being extraordinarily rare.
So when you say “round pearl” you’re really saying “round pear."
4. The original Margarita…
Although "pirum" means "pear," the Romans DID have a word for pearls: Margarita. So when Cleopatra famously dissolved pearls in wine and drank them, it was in some sense the original “Margarita” cocktail!
Frankly, we prefer the tequila-lime-triple-sec-based version…
5. Pearls are not formed around grains of sand, but nasty parasites...
It’s a common myth that grains of sand in an oyster shell are what causes a pearl to start forming naturally. In fact, oysters are typically quite capable of expelling grains of sand that get into their shells – they have no need to encase the ‘irritant’ in a pearl.
So while it’s a little gross, the truth is that most naturally-occuring pearls are formed around a parasite… some sort of sea-worm or bug that invades the oyster and grabs on and can’t be expelled. In fact, when natural pearls are drilled to be used in jewelry, there's often some really gross 'ooze' that comes out. Bleah!
If the thought of a little worm inside your pearls is distressing, take comfort in the fact that almost all pearls today are cultured, and typically formed around a small sphere of mother-of-pearl that’s inserted by hand.
6. A pearl’s surface is closer to sandpaper than silk…
The surface (or “nacre”) coating of a pearl looks smooth. That shiny luster and gleam is what makes them beautiful. But the nacre is actually made up of millions of tiny crystals, so it’s not actually ‘smooth’. That’s why one common test for a “real” pearl is to rub it on your teeth. The tiny imperfections and roughness will be felt as a ‘grittiness’ that signals a genuine pearl.
7. Pearls serve as an early-warning sign of pollution problems.
Pearls are only produced by oysters in unpolluted, pristine water. Even slight levels of pollutants will prevent oysters from proper pearl production. That’s one reason most pearl farms are quite remote, often on distant islands and reachable only by seaplane.
Unfortunately, even the most remote areas are starting to see pollution problems. Pearl Farmers are often very involved in “green” movements, since they’re on the front-lines of environmental concerns. Listen to the oysters before it’s too late…
8. Harvesting a pearl does NOT kill the oyster, and Pearl Farming is very much a ‘sustainable’ practice.
Not only does removing a pearl not kill the oyster that produced it, Pearl Farmers are extremely careful not to harm their oysters… In fact, pearl farmers typically use surgical-style instruments to harvest pearls. As oysters age, they typically produce better and better pearls. So why on earth would an oyster farmer want to harm them? Pearl Farmers are usually quite focused on ‘tending their flock’ with great care!
9. Whiter is not necessarily Better…
Traditionally, “white” pearls are perceived as “good”… It’s even part of slang: have you ever heard anyone mention “pearly whites” meaning teeth? With some pearls, particularly the South Sea variety, this is true. But in the majority of cases, whiter is actually NOT better.
Take Akoya pearls. The best Akoya pearls typically have overtones of color. Traditionally, a ‘rose’ overtone is considered best and most flattering on the skin. Other overtones can include blue or silver. But a stark-white Akoya pearl is usually an indication that it has been bleached – not ideal!
Similarly, freshwater pearls that are stark white have often been bleached and tend to become “chalky” looking, losing some of their luster along with their color overtones. Of course, many pearls (notably Tahitian Pearls or Golden South Sea Pearls) are not white at all and in these cases the play of colors is highly valued.
10. The color of a pearl is determined by the oyster’s ‘lip’
Pearls come in a vast array of colors determined by the Oyster's outer edge – their lip.
BUT wait a minute! For cultured pearls, it's not so much the lip color of the oyster in which the pearl grows, but rather the 'donor' oyster used in culturing. You see, when culturing pearls, a tiny bit of 'mantle' from a donor oyster is added with the 'seed' that is inserted into the oyster where the pearl will grow... So the oyster growing the pearl is the 'surrogate' really. You can think of the donor oyster as the 'biological mother' of the pearl that will grow. So it's the lip color of that donor oyster which really determines pearl color the most.
FWIW, we tried putting lipstick on oysters, but we didn't get "maybelline" colors that way...
While this adage is true of saltwater pearls, it is not as true for freshwater pearls produced by mussels. Freshwater mussels tend to have lips with a spectrum of colors rather than one dominant shade, and produce a stunning variety of pearl colors - often different color pearls from the very same mussel.