In Depth: South Sea Pearls

Perhaps the best-loved gems of all time, pearls—natural and cultured—occur in a wide variety of colors.

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Natural pearls form around a microscopic irritant in the bodies of certain mollusks.

Cultured pearls are the result of the deliberate insertion of a bead or piece of tissue that the mollusk subsequently coats with nacre.

HISTORY:

The South Sea pearl’s legacy reaches back thousands of years, when early Australian people believed the natural gem had supernatural powers.

Australian South Sea Islanders Pearl diving in the Torres Strait.

Australian South Sea Islanders Pearl diving in the Torres Strait.

But it wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries, after European explorers arrived in the South Pacific, that these unique pearls developed a global demand.

RELATED CONTENT:  “A Closer Look at Freshwater Pearls”

The Western World’s voracious appetite caused South Sea pearl-producing oysters to be harvested nearly to the point of extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The West's obsession with pearls pushed the oyster close to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The West’s obsession with pearls pushed the oyster close to extinction in the 18th &19th centuries.

It was in the early part of the 20th century, when pearl-culturing technology arrived from Japan, that pearl cultivation operations began appearing in the South Pacific.

RELATED CONTENT:  “A Closer look at Akoya Saltwater Pearls”

Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950’s when South Sea pearl farms began producing harvests of commercial value.

Pearl-culturing technology from Japan arrived in the early part of the 20th century and by the 1950's pearl farms started to produce commercial crops of South Sea pearls.

Pearl-culturing technology from Japan arrived in the early part of the 20th century and by the 1950’s pearl farms started to produce commercial crops of South Sea pearls.

In the mid-1990’s, South Sea pearls became available in quantities large enough to meet the needs of prestige retailers around the world.

South Sea Pearls are among the largest and most valuable pearls produced in the world.

Today, in terms of dollar value, South Sea pearls compose about 10 percent of the saltwater cultured pearl market.

CULTURE:

They are currently cultured in areas throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans, primarily in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Japan in the Pinctada maxima pearl oyster.

Different regions of the South Seas tend to produce specific colors.

Different regions of the South Seas tend to produce specific colors.

This oyster, which can grow as large as a dinner plate, produces pearls with a satin-like luster, which is an unmistakable characteristic of South Sea pearls.

RELATED CONTENT:  “A Closer Look at Tahitian Pearls”

Although the South Sea oyster will only handle one nucleus at a time, this oyster (like the Tahitian pearl producing Pinctada margaritifera) can be nucleated up to three times over the course of many years.

South Sea oysters can be used up to 3 times to produce a South Sea pearl.

South Sea oysters can be used up to 3 times to produce a South Sea pearl.

South Sea pearls have several distinct characteristics that are unique to this gem. The nacre is unusually thick, ranging from 2 6 mm, compared to the 0.35 0.7 mm of an akoya pearl.

South Sea pearls have a unique, satiny luster that comes from the rapidly deposited nacre and warm waters of the South Seas. The clean waters and abundant food supply also speeds the nacre production.

South Sea pearls from the warm waters of the South Seas have a unique, satiny luster.

South Sea pearls from the warm waters of the South Seas have a unique, satiny luster.

The growth period for South Sea pearls is also substantially longer than that of the akoya. Akoya pearls are harvested after only 9-16 months, where as South Sea pearls are harvested after a minimum of two years allowing for a larger size.

QUALITY:

Pearl quality and thus, the value of a pearl is measured according to a combination of several different factors. These factors are: the type of pearl, the thickness of its nacre, its luster, the cleanliness and texture of its surface, its shape, its color and its size.

South Sea pearls appear in a wide range of colors, with the most common being white, silver/white, pink, and gold.

South Sea Color Range for post

South Sea pearls are among the largest of all saltwater cultured pearl varieties, ranging from 8 millimeters to as large as 22 millimeters. Their average size is 15 millimeters.

Larger pearls command higher prices (again, with all other factors being equal). The size of the pearl is measured by its diameter in millimeters.

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Although some colors are naturally rarer than others, and therefore more expensive, color is largely a matter of personal taste and what looks good on you as an individual.

South Sea pearls can be found in all the shapes possible: all beautiful in their own right — “round,” “drop,” “button,” “oval,” “semi-round,” “circle — or “ringed”,” “baroque,” and “semi-baroque.”

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Because of their popularity, the “round” and “drop” shapes are usually the most expensive, as demand affects the price.

The appearance of the surface of the pearl is perhaps one of its most critical characteristics. The surface should be smooth and clean, without bumps, spots, discolorations, or other disfiguring characteristics.

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Lustre refers both to a pearl’s brilliance — the way its surface reflects light — and its inner glow: the way it refracts light. The nacre coating of South Sea pearls is especially thick, giving them a soft yet deep, rich lustre unlike that of any other type of pearl.

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Nacre is the substance from which the pearl is actually created. Pearl characteristics such as color and luster are actually characteristics of the nacre itself. In general, the thicker the nacre, the more valuable the pearl.

CARE:

It is very important to realize that pearls are very susceptible to damage from chemicals and the environment so special care needs to be taken when wearing as well as storing them.

Warm water and mild detergent are the best way to clean your pearls.

Warm water and a mild detergent are the best way to clean your pearls.

You will find our article “How to Clean Your Pearls” extremely useful for providing your pearls with the proper care they deserve.

After all, they are the only gemstone that is made by a living creature!

We hope this article has given you a bit more of a background on South Sea pearls, but should you have any additional questions about this or any other jewellery related topics, you can always: “Ask Our Jeweller”

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This article was compiled from my personal knowledge as a gemologist, as well as numerous online sources, individuals and textbooks. If you have something to add to this article that you feel would be of benefit to others, please, do not hesitate to contact us.

Comments

  1. says

    I like your Blog….. I love the pearls since I was 14 and my dad has buy me a beautiful collar of pearls in an expensive Mall in Mexico, City. With the years I buy three other collars and my grandma has given me the fourth collar before she passed away

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