BY MARK MATHOSIAN
Pearls are called the Queen of Gems and symbolize virtue, wisdom and purity. Typically, they are the most enduring type of jewelry a woman owns. To me, pearls speak class, and as a gift, they speak love. On special occasions, I gave my wife and daughter pearl earrings and necklaces, and they wear them often. Shopping for pearls is fun and rewarding, but it helps to know a little about them before buying. Below is basic information to get you started.
What is a pearl? Pearls are unique gifts of nature produced by a living mollusk – a soft-bodied invertebrate animal with a hard external shell like an oyster. Similar in composition to the shell of a clam, pearls are made of calcium carbonate in tiny crystalline form deposited in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes occur as a result of the type of mollusk, combined with natural elements. Regardless of their shape, pearls require no fashioning by human hand.
Different types. For purposes of brevity, we will examine four popular types of pearls, Akoya, freshwater, Tahitian, and South Sea. Akoya pearls are cultured pearls produced around the island of Japan. Cultured means that the irritant triggering the creation of the pearl inside the mollusk is introduced by man. Akoya pearls are the classic pearl of choice by many because they are usually perfectly round with high luster. Freshwater pearls are often irregular in shape (baroque) and grown in mollusks found in lakes and rivers. Today, most freshwater pearls are cultivated and imported from China and are the most affordable pearls. Tahitian pearls are dark and exotic, produced by the black-lip pearl oyster. Referred to as black pearls, they actually have a remarkable color range. You can usually find them in baroque, drops and ovals. South Sea pearls are rare and larger than other pearls. They come from the white-lipped variety of the pinctada maxima oyster and are whitish to almost silver in color. They are the largest saltwater pearl cultivated today and quite desirable.
Sizes of pearls. Pearls are measured in millimeters according to their diameter. Sizes range from 1mm or less to about 20mm. The average size pearl is approximately 7mm. Pearl experts suggest that for necklaces, 6-6.5mm pearls are ideal for young or petite women, while a 7-7.5mm size is most popular for average-sized women. Stud earrings are very popular in the 7.0 – 8.0mm range. These sizes can accommodate second piercings, and they are not too heavy to wear when combined. Just remember that the size of the pearl more than anything else determines the price.
Shape, color and luster. Perfectly round pearls are the most rare and typically the most valuable. Cultured pearls are usually quite round, but only about 1% are perfect spheres. Evaluate a pearl by rolling it on a flat surface. Its movement should be even and smooth. Pearls come in a variety of colors including white, pink, silver, cream, gold and black. While historically very white pearls were popular, today there is also much interest in unusual shades. The luster of a pearl is evaluated by its surface shine. The luster or shine refers to its glowing beauty. To check luster, Tiffany and Co. suggests that you “stand with the light to your back. The sharper the reflection of light in the pearl, the higher the luster.”
Here are shopping tips to keep in mind. When evaluating a strand of pearls, look for well-matched pearls similar in size, color, shape and finish. The slightest difference will create an unbalanced appearance. Also, consider the recipient’s taste in clothing and jewelry, and try to find pearls that complement the person’s wardrobe. Some pearls go nicely with business attire, while others look better with casual clothing. Look at photos of models online and in magazines to see the differences. Finally, a superstition states that if you give pearls as a gift, the recipient should pay you a small sum to ward off bad luck. If you are superstitious, put a penny or nickel in the box and have your loved one give it back to you as payment. That’s what I did, and I am happy to report we have been married for 46 years.