What are Pearls?

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  • Written By: Deborah Ng
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 17 January 2020
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Pearls differ from other gemstones in that they're not mined from rock, but rather harvested from mollusks — especially oysters, although clams and mussels have been known to produce them as well. Basically, a pearl is produced when an irritant such as sand gets caught inside the oyster. To protect itself, the oyster secretes a substance similar to mucus that builds up around the sand and hardens.

It is a long, tedious practice to find oysters that have ingested a piece of sand to produce a pearl. The longer a pearl stays inside an oyster, the larger it becomes. Because of this, quality ones are considered rare and can be quite expensive. Fortunately for those who favor this gem, there are now farms that deliberately inject an irritant into the mollusks. These are known as cultured pearls.

Natural or South Sea pearls are those made by mollusks harvested from the ocean. Every now and then, one will be a darker shade, either gray or black. These are rare, and as a result, very expensive.

Freshwater pearls are produced by mussels. As their name indicates, these creatures are found in rivers and lakes rather than the ocean. Unlike the oyster, the mussel can produce more than one pearl at a time, sometimes as many as 40 or 50. They come in various shapes and sizes.


When pearls are made without the benefit of a mollusk, they're considered man-made. These are created by using a bit of sand or shell along with a fish-based product called hermage to act as a substitute for the oyster's mucus. Other synthetics include the "glass" pearl, a bead painted with hermage and left to dry and harden. These have little or no value.

Pearls are considered classic and elegant. They're often the first choice for bridal jewelry and have a reputation of looking good with any outfit, even the most casual. They canb also add class and elegance to the most formal wardrobe. Individuals who are considering buying jewelry that includes them should do some research to find the type of pearl best suited for the person's needs and budget.


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Post 6

I have a cheap pearl jewelry set. Though the pieces started out looking creamy and lustrous like real pearls, the coating began to chip and flake away after a year or so.

Underneath, there was an unattractive solid surface that looked very dull. I suppose that the “pearl” coating was just painted on top of this, and it gave way over time with wear.

I'm glad I didn't pay too much for this set. I wanted to give it a try, but I had a feeling that it wouldn't last very long.

Post 5

I was surprised to learn that chocolate pearls are just black pearls that have been bleached. Apparently, black pearls are rare, so this is why chocolate pearls cost so much.

The black pearl comes from this oyster that is super sensitive to its surroundings, so if the temperature changes, it can affect pearl production. Also, it's impossible to culture pearls from this type of oyster, because it refuses to cooperate.

Post 4

@cloudel – Freshwater pearls are much cheaper than saltwater pearls. I got a pearl necklace for only $90.

At that price, I could even afford to get some freshwater pearl earrings to match. They cost even less than the necklace, because they held fewer pearls.

The pearls were a lovely dark gray color. I got them five years ago, and they are still as beautiful today as they were when I bought them.

Post 3

How expensive are freshwater pearls? My niece told me that she would love a freshwater pearl necklace for her graduation gift, but I have no idea whether or not I can afford this.

Post 2

@ Fiorite- That price sounds better suited for a decent strand of Akoya Pearls (Japanese Cultured). Even still, you will not find a strand of collection cultured pearls for less than $1500 or so. You should be glad that you did not fall for the pitch. If you are going to buy natural pearls, make sure that you receive a certificate from a reputable independent gem grading company. GIA is one of the leaders in certifying gems and pearls. A store certificate of authenticity means nothing for the simple fact that there is no requirement for a certified independent gemologist to make the claim, and the store has its own interest first.

I read somewhere that gem grade natural earls

are about one in a million if found in the wild so the price they fetch is well worth the investment in getting them certified. The certification is almost a mandate for most serious pearl collectors so asking a jeweler to produce a certificate should be taken as a compliment.
Post 1

I went to a jewelry store and the sales person tried to sell me a strand of pearls as natural pearls for around $1000. I do not know much about pearls, but I thought that a nice strand of natural pearls is much more expensive than cultured pearls because the odds of an oyster containing a pearl are slim. I didn't buy the strand because the sales person seemed a little pushy, and I did not know how to tell a natural pearl from a cultured pearl. Does anyone know how to tell the difference? Does a 16" strand of approx. 7mm natural pearls sound legit for $1000?

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