About Pearls
Unlike gemstones, produced deep inside the Earth, pearls are created by living creatures called mollusks. Mollusks commonly have a soft body and a hard exterior shell, such as a clam or snail has. These animals live in marine and freshwater habitats as well as on land. The evolutionary history of this group extends back millions of years, with approximately 100,000 species of mollusks alive today. Any mollusk that produces a shell can produce a pearl. Nevertheless, naturally occurring pearls are rare, found in perhaps one of every 10,000 animals. The cultured pearl industry, which has flourished since the early 20th century, has developed techniques to greatly improve these odds. Indeed, more pearls are produced now than at any time in human history.

How Pearls Form
Contrary to popular belief, pearls hardly ever result from the intrusion of a grain of sand into an oyster’s shell. Instead, a pearl forms when an irritant such as a wayward food particle becomes trapped in the mollusk. The animal senses the object and coats it with layers of aragonite and conchiolin. These two materials are the same substances the animal uses to build its shell.

In most pearls, the mineral aragonite is arranged in sheets of flat, six-sided crystals. Between each sheet, the mollusk secretes a very thin layer of the membrane-forming protein conchiolin. This composite material is called nacre or mother-of-pearl. The crystalline structure of nacre reflects light in a unique way, giving so-called nacreous pearls their high luster. Some pearls are not nacreous, instead have a low-luster, porcelain like surface.

Because a pearl is the product of a biological process, its surface often shows minor imperfections. When a mollusk secretes the microscopic layers that make up a pearl, each layer does not always encircle the entire pearl. These uneven layers create additional irregularities on the surface. As a result, it is easy to distinguish a real pearl from an artificial one by rubbing it gently across your teeth: a real pearl will feel gritty and an artificial pearl will feel smooth and slippery.

Size and Shape
Pearls come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. Most people think of a pearl as round. The truth is that irregularly shaped pearls are more common in nature, while perfectly round pearls are extremely rare. A pearl’s size and shape depend on the species of mollusk that produced the pearl, how long it took to form, and where the pearl formed inside the animal. There are no guarantees on a pearl’s size and shape, which reflect such variables as the temperature and chemistry of the water, as well as the health of the mollusk.

Pearls occur naturally in a spectacular array of colors, ranging from white to gold, purple and black. A pearl’s color depends on both the species of mollusk that produced the pearl and the environment in which the animal lived. Crystals of aragonite are white or colorless. The natural color of a pearl is mostly due to conchiolin, which contains organic pigments.

One of the most distinctive features of a nacreous pearl is the way it seems to glow from within. This property, known as “luster,” gives a pearl its unusual beauty. Luster results from the reflection of light rays not only off the surface of the pearl, but also off the inner layers of nacre. The multiple layers of nacre also contribute to the “iridescence” or “orient” of pearls—a characteristic that resembles the shimmer seen on a soap bubble. The layers of nacre act like tiny prisms, refracting light so that it appears to show all the colors of the rainbow.

Unlike gemstones such as diamonds, pearls are not judged by a single international standard of quality. Various systems have been developed for grading pearls on the basis of luster, color, size, shape, surface and iridescence. Jewelers sort pearls according to grade, grouping together gems of similar quality. Although mollusks do most of the work of making pearls, humans use a variety of techniques to improve the quality of pearls or to introduce effects not found in nature. Such methods range from simple washing and buffing to more radical treatments such as exposing pearls to radiation. Despite these common “enhancements,” the pearl industry still favors the high-quality, blemish-free spherical pearl as its most perfect form.

Freshwater Pearls
Pearl mussels live in lakes, rivers and streams. These freshwater mollusks produce pearls that can rival those of marine mollusks in luster and diverse color. And some species of freshwater pearl mussels are known to have produced dozens of pearls at a time. The local freshwater pearls of Europe, Asia and North America have been prized for hundreds and even thousands of years. In the early 1900s, the many species of North American pearl mussels supplied the thick mother-of-pearl needed for the button industry then booming in the Midwest. Today, freshwater mussel shells provide material for bead nuclei, which pearl farmers around the world implant in marine pearl oysters to create cultured pearls.

Unlike the larvae of marine pearl oysters, the specialized larvae of freshwater pearl mussels must attach to a fish for survival. Their tiny hooks cling to the fish’s fins or gills until the larvae develop enough to drop off and settle at the bottom of a lake or streambed. The attached larvae feed on particles from the fish’s food supply, and the fish carry them to new habitats. Because the environment must sustain both the larvae and the fish on which they depend, the presence or absence of pearl mussels may indicate the relative health of a river or lake.

How to Care For Your Pearls
Cosmetics, household cleaning products, and other chemicals can damage or change the appearance of your pearls. The layers of nacre that form a pearl make it a soft substance by industry standards. These layers can be worn off or damaged if mistreated. Avoid applying these products when wearing pearls. If contact is made, be sure and wipe off the pearls gently or wash them with warm, soapy water. This will help keep the beautiful luster of your pearls looking new. You should always have your pearl strands inspected regularly by a jeweler. With normal wear, strands need to be re-strung every few years.

Information Source: American Museum of Natural History or AMNH.

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