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All About Pearls

A Beginner's Guide to Pearls

By

Celebrity Jewelry

Ensemble by designer Antipodium - April 30, 2008, in Sydney, Australia

Ian Waldie / Getty Images
Pearls are an organic gem, called organic because they are created by living creatures. Each pearl begins its existence as a piece of grit or other particle that makes its way into the shell of a marine or freshwater mollusk — some types of oysters and clams. A defense mechanism kicks-in and coats the particle with layer after layer of a substance called nacre, or mother-of-pearl, which eventually becomes thick enough to form a pearl.

Pearls are classified by their origins and their shapes.

Pearl Origin Classifications

Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are formed when an accidental intruder enters a mollusk's shell and continuous layers of nacre grow like onion skins around the particle. Natural pearls vary in shape depending on the shape of the piece being coated.

Natural pearls have always been considered rare and are quite expensive. They are usually sold by carat weight. Most natural pearls on today's market are vintage pearls.

Cultured Pearls

Like natural pearls, cultured pearls grow inside of a mollusk, but with human intervention. A shell is carefully opened and an object is inserted. Shapes of objects vary, depending on the final shape of pearl that's desired.

Over time the object becomes coated with layers of nacre. The depth of the nacre coating depends on the type of mollusk involved, the water it lives in, and how long the intruder is left in place before being harvested. As nacre thickness increases, so does the quality and durability of the cultured pearl.

Cultured pearls are sold by their size in millimeters.

Saltwater Pearls

Saltwater pearls originate within a saltwater mollusk. Saltwater pearls can be either natural or cultured.

Freshwater Pearls

Freshwater pearls grow inside of a freshwater mollusk — one that lives in a river or a lake.

Pearl Shape Classifications

Spherical pearls are round, which is traditionally the most desirable shape. The rounder the pearl, the more expensive its price tag.

Symmetrical pearls include pear shaped pearls and other shapes that have symmetry from one side to another, but are not round.

Baroque pearls are irregularly shaped pearls. They are often the least expensive category of pearls, but are unique and quite beautiful.

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