Pearl diving

The world is your oyster… it’s up to you to find the pearls

Exuding a unique charm and elegance; pearls have been heralded as a must-have luxury for centuries.  Considered the ultimate status symbol by ancient Romans, pearls association with royalty dates back to 420BC due to the discovery of a fragment of pearl jewellery  in the sarcophagus of a Persian Princess.  Laterally synonymous with the roaring twenties,  pearl jewellery remains a timeless and classic accessory.  Read on to find out what makes this exquisite gem so highly sought after and how bespoke pearl jewellery comes about…

Nature vs Nurture

Pearls are one of the earliest gems to be used in body adornments.  As they do not require to be cut or shaped (like diamonds or other gemstones) pearls are easily turned into jewellery.  Natural pearls are extremely rare with only a small percentage of those achieving the optimum size, shape and quality required for the jewellery industy.  Water-dwelling creatures known as molluscs are the sole source of pearls – most importantly saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels.  The main types of pearls used in jewellery design are either ‘natural’ or ‘cultured’ both of which can be freshwater or saltwater.  Simply put;  cultured pearls are the result of human intervention by way of pearl farming.  China is the biggest producer of cultured pearls closely followed by Japan, Australia and Indonesia.

Like the name suggests, natural pearls occur on their own in the mantle tissue of marine oysters and freshwater mussels.  Only about 1 in 10,000 wild oysters will yield a pearl so are very rare.  Pearls are formed when the molluscs release chemicals in response to an irritant such as a parasite entering their shell or damage occurs to their body.  These chemicals – aragonite and conchiolin – build up layers of nacre which go on to create round pearls.  Some pearls can develop in a few months with larger gems taking around 4 years to reach maturity.

Where in the world do pearls come from?

At one time freshwater pearl mussels were prevalent in Scottish rivers, however environmental changes and over-fishing has attributed to their depletion. Since 1998 it has been illegal to harvest pearls in Scottish waters and the freshwater pearl mussel was made a fully protected species.  Pearl diving (or ‘pearling’) for natural pearls is most common in the United Arab Emirates with the shallow waters of the Gulf coast lending itself to simpler dives without the use of breathing apparatus.  In Japan pearl diving was once carried out by ‘Ama’ – a group of fearless women divers famed for free diving depths of up to 20m unaided to retrieve pearls and seafood.  The Ama have dwindled in recent years and their practices are now viewed as a tourist attraction on Mikimoto Pearl Island.

Tahitian Baroque and South Sea Pearl Strand with Diamond Accent Detailing    Ladies White Teardrop Baroque Shape Freshwater Pearl Necklace with Sterling Silver Clasp

Pearl terminology:

KESHI – derived from the Japanese for ‘poppy seed’, Keshi pearls are a by-product of pearl cultivation. They are formed when the oyster rejects the nucleus (which guides the forming of traditional round pearls) allowing the free-form growth of unusual shaped Keshi pearls.  This type of pearl tends not to be too large but can come in a variety of colours.

BAROQUE – this type of pearl is irregular of shape – or perfectly imperfect!  They can appear ovoid in shape with a pinch to one end offering a really organic look when used in jewellery.  From the Portuguese word ‘barocco’ (meaning imperfect),  Baroque pearls have an uneven, textured surface.

AKOYA – known for their exceptionally high lustre, Akoya are a type of cultured saltwater pearl that is cultivated in the seas of Japan.  Perfectly round and normally around 3-10mm in size, Akoya pearls are white in colour with a slight tinge of either rose,  cream/ivory or silver.

SOUTH SEA – the rarest of all pearl types! The majority of white South Sea pearls are cultured in waters off the coast of northwest Australia, while gold coloured ones originate from the Philippines.  It is important to keep South Sea pearls dry as water can cause damage to the outer surface.

CONCH PEARL – this is a rare type of pearl that is produced by conch shells.  The most desirable colour of Conch pearl is pink and only found in the waters of Bermuda and the Caribbean.  These highly prized gemstones are sometimes seen in antique Art Nouveau jewellery pieces.

TAHITIAN – sometimes referred to as black pearls, this variety in fact occurs in cool, dark shades most commonly a greenish-grey.  Black-lipped oysters native to Tahiti and the Cook Islands bear these type of pearls.

LUSTRE – this term describes the brilliance (how its surface reflects light) and inner glow (how it refracts light) of the pearl.  The more lustrous a pearl the more it shines and reflects light. A low lustre pearl will appear dull white/chalky.  Sometimes also known as ‘Orient’ which sees an iridescent rainbow glow appear on or just beneath the surface of the pearl.

bespoke pearl jewellery by Blair and Sheridan

Pearl care/maintenance

As a delicate gemstone, pearls can discolour and crack over time – exposure to prolonged heat and certain chemicals can be very harmful.  Pearls cannot be polished like other gemstones so any scratches to the surface are permanent.  Here are our top tips for pearl care:

  • Your body’s natural oils keep pearls moisturized and retain their shine – if ever you need a reason to wear them more often then this is it!
  • Put your pearls on last thing when getting ready – this minimizes their exposure to body lotions, hairspray, perfume etc.
  • Wipe pearls down after every wear – clean each pearl individually with a soft cloth to remove any perspiration, make up or dirt. Only put them away if they are completely dry.
  • An airless atmosphere can dry out pearls, when not being worn you should store them in a silk pouch or chamois leather pouch allowing them to breathe.
  • Chlorinated water can cause significant damage to pearls so they should never be worn in swimming pools or hot tubs or when washing dishes/cleaning. Never fully submerge pearls in water.
  • Lay a pearl strand flat when you take it off – the silk thread used to string pearls can stretch when left hanging.
  • It is recommended to have a pearl strand re-strung every 2 years if you are wearing them regularly – if the thread is dis-coloured or loose then it is time to re-string.

At Blair and Sheridan we can source the perfect pearls for your next bespoke jewellery design  –  whether a classic pearl strand,  simple pearl stud earrings or a pendant/bracelet piece with a pearl accent – view our galleries of latest pearl designs.  We can also facilitate aftercare of pearl strands and can offer a re-stringing service.  Get in touch today to enquire about bespoke designs or re-stringing.