Guide to Pearls

Pearls are the oldest known gems and have fascinated people since their discovery. Their ancient history and unique beauty make pearls a timeless addition to any jewelry collection.



These pearls form in an oyster just as natural pearls do, except the process is induced by human action. Since the early 1900's, pearls have been cultured with great success. The outward appearance is the same as that of a natural pearl, and only x-ray equipment can detect the difference.


Freshwater pearls can be natural or cultured pearls produced by certain species of freshwater mussels in lakes, streams and rivers. These pearls come in a wide range of colors and unique shapes, ranging from round to elongated and baroque shapes.


These pearls are actually man-made beads intended to resemble oyster-made pearls. They may be made of glass, shell, plastic or other similar materials.


Pronouced MAH-bee, these pearls are cultured to grow in either a pear-shape or hemispherical shape, sometimes in quite large sizes.


Mother-of-Pearl is the inside of the mollusk's shell, which is composed of the same material as pearls. It is also cut as a gem material, but is limited due to its unsightly back.


When some type of irritant enters the shell of an oyster and becomes embedded in the soft inner part of the oyster, a pearl begins to form. In nature, the production of a pearl occurs purely by accident, making natural pearls extremely rare and valuable.


All pearls, natural or cultured, that form in saltwater, ocean-dwelling oysters are considered saltwater pearls. These are the most commonly prized cultured pearls in jewelry stores today due to their superior luster and near perfect roundness.


These pearls come from the South Pacific Islands, particularly Tahiti, where oysters grow bigger in warmer waters. There is a greater abundance of darkly colored pearls, known as black pearls, from this region.



A pearl's luster refers to how shiny it is and is often considered the most important factor when it comes to judging a pearl's beauty and value. Luster is developed while the pearl is still within the oyster or mollusk; the longer the pearl is inside, the thicker its outer layer (called "nacre") will be, provding durability and shine. Be sure to check for surface abrasions when buying pearls, as these imperfections will affect luster.


Pearls come in a variety of different colors, and there are up to three elements making up their hue. Possessed by all pearls, "bodycolor" refers to the dominant color of the pearl. The one or two translucent colors on top of the bodycolor are referred to as the "overtone," and the final element is "orient," which is a rainbow-colored shimmer on or just below the pearl's surface. Pearls that possess all three of these elements are more rare and more valuable than those that only have one or two.


Pearls can vary greatly in size. Generally, the larger the pearl, the more expensive it will be, though factors like shape and luster will have an impact on value as well. Larger pearls are typically used in necklaces, while smaller pearls are perfect for earrings or rings.


No two pearls are exactly alike, so matching pearls within a piece of jewelry such as a necklace or pair of earrings can be challenging. Similarly, a perfectly round pearl is very rare, so most pearls will be somewhat asymmetrical in shape. When buying pearl jewelry, evaluate how similar the pearls appear to be. The closer in size, shape and color they are, the more valuable the jewelry will be. The pearls need not always be the same color or size, but it is important that their luster and color elements be similar to create a cohesive piece of jewelry.


Pearls are durable, yet soft and chemically vulnerable. Follow these steps to help your pearls last a lifetime and beyond:

  • Pearls should never be taken into the shower or swimming pool. Water is rough on the nylon/silk string the pearls are strung on and chemicals in the pool water may damage the pearls.
  • Pearls should be removed before doing any hard work. Perspiration and household cleansers are not good for pearls.
  • Make-up, hairspray, and perfume should be put on before putting on pearls. Potentially destructive acids are present in cosmetics.
  • Steam cleaning and ultrasonic cleaning are not recommended for pearls.
  • Use a commercial pearl-cleaning solution, if possible. Do not use regular jewelry cleaning solution. It generally contains ammonia, which is not good for pearls.
  • Pearls should be wiped regularly with a soft damp cloth. If thorough cleaning is necessary, use mild soap in warm water. Scrub gently with a soft bristled brush. A nylon toothbrush is too hard and may scratch the pearls. After cleaning, do not wear until the string is completely dry.
  • Pearls should be restrung every 6 to 12 months if worn frequently. It is very important that knots be tied in between each pearl when stringing, to prevent the pearls from rubbing against each other and damaging the luster.