Pearls, Questions and Answers by Teresa Tkacik, M.S.N., F.N.P.C.

teresa1Teresa provided a very informative history of pearls, how pearls are cultured, the characteristic of pearls, and Faux pearls, which included a hands on demonstration of how to evaluate pearls.

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Recommended reading: Tears of the Moon by Robert Verspui

Pearls are the oldest organic gem used by man, dating back to 2,300 BC in China where documentation describes pearls and their use.  Royalty coveted pearls, in China pearls were set aside for the exclusive use of Royal family.

American Royalty, Elizabeth Taylor loved her jewelry, especially pearls!  One of her favorites was La Peregrina Pearl, a 50.6-carat pearl, one of the largest natural pearls in the world, measuring approximately 0.7 inch by 1 inch in size.
la-peregrina-pearlKing Philip II of Spain gave the pearl to Queen Mary I of England before their marriage in 1554, but after her death in 1558, the King proposed to his dead queen’s younger half-sister, Elizabeth I who wanted the pearl, but refused to marry King Philip II, so he took back La Peregrina Pearl.  The pearl was worn by Spanish royalty until the 19th century, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and seized the Spanish crown, and the pearl.

La Peregrina Pearl was passed down to members of the Bonaparte family, but was ultimately sold to Lord James Hamilton in 1873.  It was then sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $37,000 in 1969 to Richard Burton, who gave it to his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, as a Valentine’s Day present.  After Taylor’s death in 2011, La Peregrina Pearl was bought for 11.8 million by an anonymous buyer at a Christie’s auction. So you can see what value this pearl holds, even today.

OysterTwo basic types of pearls are SEA and FRESHWATER, the names define the place of origin.
Bivalve oysters and mussels are both capable of producing pearls. Univalve Mussels may also produce pearls.

Pearls are made of Calcium carbonate and Concholin. Concholin is water mixed with minerals that act as a binder.  The pearl is formed not by sand (a myth), as it has a sophisticated filtration system, but when invaded by an intruder or the mantel is injured. First line of protection is the secretion of Concholin and then Calcuim carbonate.  It is the brick work layers of polygons (Calcium carbonate and Concholin) that allow for the prism effect of deflecting and reflecting light that gives the pearl an ability to reveal colors.

A pearl is created when a foreign object enters the oyster and or mussel and becomes lodged between the shell and inner lining or mantle.  This invader could also pick up a piece of the mantle tissue as it passes deeper inside the shell. It’s this mantle tissue
that secretes nacre around the irritant, laying down nacre in concentric layers. The shape and size of pearls, both natural and cultured, depends upon the shape and size of the nucleus used.

How to tell Real Pearls from Faux Pearls?

  1. Rub the pearl across your front tooth, it should feel gritty, not smooth.
  2. Rub two pearls of a strand together, once again they should feel gritty, not smooth.
  3. Evaluate the drill hole.  The pearl’s drilled hole is a smooth cross cut, while the faux bead will have a punched out appearance.
  4. Cultured pearls are not perfect in appearance.  Faux beads are perfectly round and smooth without defects.
  5. Over time paint chips may be noted as faux beads age.
  6. Weight of cultured pearls is heavier than faux beads.

How are Faux Pearls Made?

Anything that has value will be imitated! China was early on the scene in the first century!
Wang Chhung wrote this in a book called, Lun Heng, in the year A.D. 83: “By following the proper timing (i.e. when to begin heating and how long to go on) pearls can be made from
chemicals, just as brilliant as genuine ones.  This is the climax of Taoist learning and a triumph of their skill.”

In the 16th century Venetians learned to create iridescent glass, they blew bubbles of this glass and filled them with wax to create false pearls.

The “Pearlessence” came from a French Parisian rosary maker named, Jacquin, developing a substance called “essence d’orient or pearlessence. He realized that when fish scales were in water, they gave off a “pearly substance” which floated on the water’s surface. By mixing this iridescence with varnish, he created essence d’orient which he would eventually use to coat the insides of glass beads and fill them with wax.

Manufactured Majorica Pearls, lovely and large imitation pearls (considered the world’s finest faux pearls). Majorica pearls from Spain, started in 1890 by a German immigrant
Eduardo Hugo Heusch, made with proprietary formulas that are closely guarded secrets. Majorica or Mallorca pearls are a carefully designed nuclei dipped in high quality essence d’orient and polished between dippings.  A special final coating is applied and to prevent deterioration, the Majorica pearls are put under ultraviolet radiation. 2.5 million impeccable strands of faux pearls enter the market each year, including no doubt, 20 mm faux pearls, fake black pearls and faux graduated pearls.

Faux pearls are supposed to be clearly identified as fake pearls, but as we all know, not everyone follows the guidelines, so enjoy those fake pearls, just don’t be tricked into thinking they are real cultured or genuine natural pearls.

Don’t be tricked into buying simulated pearls.
Here are just some of the misnomers, names or words that may be used to mislead the unwary  consumer into thinking that they are buying genuine cultured or real natural pearls.

Atlas pearls: Imitation; satinspar type gypsum beads.
Cave pearls: Imitation, water-polished objects of calcium carbonate from limestone caves.
Kultured pearls: Imitation
Laguna pearls: Imitation
La Tausca pearls: Imitation
Majorica (Mallorca) pearls: Imitation
Nautilus mabe pearls: Cut and polished shell from the chamber of the nautilus mollusk
Red Sea pearls: Coral beads
River strands: Imitation pearls with mother-of-pearl core
Shell mabe: Cut and polished shell from the chamber of the nautilus mollusk
South ocean pearls: Imitation pearls with mother-of-pearl core
Semi-cultured pearls: Imitations made from cultured pearls with very poor nacre coating, over which pearlessence has been added.

Five basic characteristics of pearls are: Luster–Shape–Size–Color–Surface

LUSTER – is the most important of the five characteristics, probably because it’s the quality that’s most visible from a distance as the beauty catches your eye.  It also shows the quality and depth of nacre.  The deeper the layers, the higher the luster.  When picking out pearls look at them with your back to the light.  A fine pearl will reflect your image like a mirror.

SHAPE – round, symmetrical, baroque, other.

  • ROUND is the most favored and valuable.  Before cultured pearls were available, it could take years to make a matching necklace.  Today, with more available, matching necklaces are easier to make.
  • SYMMETRICAL Potato pearls are symmetrical, not baroque.
  • BAROQUE – Natural pearls have no nucleus.  Therefore they are most often baroque.
    Baroque is noted when there is no straight line of the axis.  Baroque is a term people use freely if a pearl is not round.
  • OTHER – infinite number of shape names given to odd shaped pearls.  Shapes vary from near round to highly irregular.  They can be equally as lovely as round and when they have a high luster, just as stunning. RICE pearls look like rice crispies and are usually used in quantity on twisted strands.  Remember that the shape of the nucleus inserted will determine the shape of the pearl.

SIZE – is measured in millimeters, the larger the higher the price, but not always, depending on nucleus size and nacre thickness.  7mm-7 1/2 mm are the most common size, 9mm to 13mm or larger are possible.

COLOR – while white with a pink overtone was originally most common and wanted, colors can be peach, black (which may be dyed), lavender, gold, silver or pink.

SURFACE – can be perfect or near perfect, contain small “pits,” or have rings around them. Most, even high quality pearls, have some imperfections.  The minor imperfections of a pearl do not detract from their beauty unless severe.

Evaluating Cultured Pearls

  1. Luster.  Which is the reflective quality of pearls. Luster is the most important pearl quality, as it is an indicator of nacre thickness, since the thicker the nacre the better the luster.  Luster produces a mirror-like quality in the pearl.
  2. Surface.  Almost all pearls have some surface imperfections, but if you can’t see the imperfections when looking at the pearls from a distance of two feet, they probably won’t be noticed by anyone else.  Therefore the slight flaws will not detract from your jewelry’s beauty.  Only you will know they are there and you do not have to tell!
  3. Shape.  Naturally, a perfect sphere is the most sought after shape, although there is a growing interest in baroque or misshapen pearls which make for very interesting jewelry designs.
  4. Color.  Cultured pearls come in a wide range of natural shades. Choose the color that you enjoy wearing, because they are all lovely.
  5. Size.  Pearl size is measured in millimeters, so familiarize yourself with the decimal system if you want to visualize the size of pearls mentioned somewhere.  After a little practice, one can easily imagine the size when you hear the diameter of a pearls in millimeters, but never rely on guessing, have the salesperson measure them for you if you want to know the exact size of pearls.  Price is often set by size as more nacre layers produce a larger size.  But remember the nucleus used to start the pearl may be 10mm of the 11mm pearl being sold.
  6. Matching Pearls.  A well matched necklace makes a statement and should be insisted upon when purchasing.  Ideally, all the five above qualities should match closely.

DCGIA thanks Teresa Tkacik for sharing her knowledge and experience of pearls with us.


Tony + Becky


Summary by Charles Marts
Pictures Charles Marts and provided by Teresa Tkacik

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3 Responses to Pearls, Questions and Answers by Teresa Tkacik, M.S.N., F.N.P.C.

  1. Ed kern says:

    I loved the talk

  2. Gillian Hanlon says:

    Thank you, Teresa, for such a wonderful and informative lecture. You were an absolute delight and I appreciate you bringing examples of pearls for us to examine and a beautiful silk robe with a pearl related story woven into it. I also appreciate you having your pearl slideshow available for us to view at any time. Please continue to bring your joyous and infectious pearl lectures for all to enjoy!

    • Teresa tkacik says:

      Gillian , thank YOU for attending. I thoroughly enjoyed giving the short by sweet lecuter. You were kind to email me regarding the information. If you ever would like to discuss pearls at a round table talk let me know. It would be such fun.TeresA

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