Natural pearls have been used in jewelry for more than 4,000 years. These “natural accidents” are formed randomly when an irritant becomes trapped within the shell of a mollusk, and the animal protects itself by secreting nacre –a protective coating of calcium carbonate – to encase the irritant. Over a period of a few years, layers of nacre form around the intruder, building a natural pearl within the tissue of the mollusk.
Natural pearls are extremely rare and only found by chance. Because of their rarity, natural pearls enjoy a status reputation and are typically found today only in museum pieces, or they rarely become available in estate jewelry offered at auction at record-breaking prices.
The popularity of pearls led to the rapid expansion of the cultured pearl industry during the early part of the 20th century. Cultured pearls are pearls that grow only after human intervention, and are also “real” in that they form when layers of nacre are secreted around an irritant inside of an oyster shell. But, to cause the oyster to form a pearl, the farmer intentionally causes its development by inserting an object called a nucleus within the mollusk’s shell. Cultured pearls can be identified using x-rays to reveal their interior structure.
Modern pearls are cultured in dozens of shapes and are grown within several species of mollusk across the South Pacific. Available in a wide range of colors, modern pearls are popular in all types of jewelry and are often used in combination with gemstones. Their luster and appealing range of colors allows today’s pearls to be set in precious metals of all colors. Classic pearl shapes like round, near-round, coin, button, drop Baroque and Mabe´are widely available on the market, as well as stick, rice, seed and other novelty shapes, along with carved and modified South Sea Pearls featuring gold or silver micro-mosaic, abalone shell inlay or hand painting.
A recent award-winning trend in pearls is to carve their surface and then to channel set a line or cluster of faceted stones or crystals into the carvings. These unique objects of beauty have become wildly popular amongst pearl collectors and new designs are eagerly anticipated at international gem shows.
Pearl “Grottos” like those created by Hisano Shepherd feature sliced and carved soufflé pearls set with inverted gemstones and minute crystals within their openings.
According to the Cultured Pearl Association of America, pearls “Continue to surprise and delight individuals across a wide range of budgets and tastes.” So why not try using pearls in your next design or collection? With such a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes available on the market, the pearl is the embodiment of a classic gem that has been successfully updated for modern jewelers and collectors alike.
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