A pearl is a hard glistening object produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk or another animal, such as a conulariid. Just like the shell of a mollusk, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate (mainly aragonite or a mixture of aragonite and calcite) in minute crystalline form, which has been deposited in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes, known as baroque pearls, can occur. The finest quality natural pearls have been highly valued as gemstones and objects of beauty for many centuries. Because of this, pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable.
The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously in the wild, but are extremely rare. These wild pearls are referred to as natural pearls. Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold. Imitation pearls are also widely sold in inexpensive jewelry, but the quality of their iridescence is usually very poor and is easily distinguished from that of genuine pearls. Pearls have been harvested and cultivated primarily for use in jewelry, but in the past were also used to adorn clothing. They have also been crushed and used in cosmetics, medicines and paint formulations.
Whether wild or cultured, gem-quality pearls are almost always nacreous and iridescent, like the interior of the shell that produces them. However, almost all species of shelled mollusks are capable of producing pearls (technically "calcareous concretions") of lesser shine or less spherical shape. Although these may also be legitimately referred to as "pearls" by gemological labs and also under U.S. Federal Trade Commission rules, and are formed in the same way, most of them have no value except as curiosities.
Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin. It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare.
Typically, the build-up of a natural pearl consists of a brown central zone formed by columnar calcium carbonate (usually calcite, sometimes columnar aragonite) and a yellowish to white outer zone consisting of nacre (tabular aragonite). In a pearl cross-section such as the diagram, these two different materials can be seen. The presence of columnar calcium carbonate rich in organic material indicates juvenile mantle tissue that formed during the early stage of pearl development. Displaced living cells with a well-defined task may continue to perform their function in their new location, often resulting in a cyst. Such displacement may occur via an injury. The fragile rim of the shell is exposed and is prone to damage and injury. Crabs, other predators and parasites such as worm larvae may produce traumatic attacks and cause injuries in which some external mantle tissue cells are disconnected from their layer. Embedded in the conjunctive tissue of the mantle, these cells may survive and form a small pocket in which they continue to secrete calcium carbonate, their natural product. The pocket is called a pearl sac, and grows with time by cell division. The juvenile mantle tissue cells, according to their stage of growth, secrete columnar calcium carbonate from pearl sac's inner surface. In time, the pearl sac's external mantle cells proceed to the formation of tabular aragonite. When the transition to nacre secretion occurs, the brown pebble becomes covered with a nacreous coating. During this process, the pearl sac seems to travel into the shell; however, the sac actually stays in its original relative position the mantle tissue while the shell itself grows. After a couple of years, a pearl forms and the shell may be found by a lucky pearl fisher.
The unique luster of pearls depends upon the reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light from the translucent layers. The thinner and more numerous the layers in the pearl, the finer the luster. The iridescence that pearls display is caused by the overlapping of successive layers, which breaks up light falling on the surface. In addition, pearls (especially cultured freshwater pearls) can be dyed yellow, green, blue, brown, pink, purple, or black. The very best pearls have a metallic mirror-like luster.
Because pearls are made primarily of calcium carbonate, they can be dissolved in vinegar. Calcium carbonate is susceptible to even a weak acid solution because the crystals of calcium carbonate react with the acetic acid in the vinegar to form calcium acetate and carbon dioxide.
Value of a natural pearl:
Fine quality natural pearls are very rare jewels. Their values are determined similarly to those of other precious gems, according to size, shape, color, quality of surface, orient and luster.
Single natural pearls are often sold as collectors' items, or set as centerpieces in unique jewelry. Very few matched strands of natural pearls exist, and those that do often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (In 1917, jeweler Pierre Cartier purchased the Fifth Avenue mansion that is now the New York Cartier store in exchange for a matched double strand of natural pearls Cartier had been collecting for years; at the time, it was valued at US$1 million.)
The introduction and advance of the cultured pearl hit the pearl industry hard. Pearl dealers publicly disputed the authenticity of these new cultured products, and left many consumers uneasy and confused about their much lower prices. Essentially, the controversy damaged the images of both natural and cultured pearls. By the 1950s, when a significant number of women in developed countries could afford their own cultured pearl necklace, natural pearls were reduced to a small, exclusive niche in the pearl industry.
How to protect your pearl jewelry:
1. Pearls Are Soft: Handle with Care: Pearls are one of the softest materials used in jewelry. Almost all gems are harder than them. For this reason, you should keep in mind that whatever other jewelry material your pearls come in close contact with, they are likely to get scratched. Be careful when wearing your pearls because a strong bump can easily damage them. Make sure not to drop any of your pearls on hard surfaces. When you take off your pearl jewelry, place it carefully on something soft.
2. Safety Rules When Wearing Your Pearls: You should also be careful not to damage your pearls when wearing them. Only use perfume or hair spray before putting your pearls on, as otherwise these substances may dissolve them. Household cleaning products can also harm your pearls, so take off your pearl jewelry when doing any housework. Don’t cook when wearing pearls because some ingredients, especially those with acidic content like lemon juice or vinegar, can damage your pearl jewelry; baking soda can also be harmful. Avoid exposing your pearls to heat.
3. Caring for Pearls and Storing Them Safely: Clean your pearls with a soft cloth each time after you wear them (don’t use toothbrushes or rough materials). You can use a little water, but avoid soap as some brands contain substances that may not be pearl-friendly. Don’t use ultrasonic cleaners, as they can be damaging to pearls. Don’t store your pearl jewelry in tightly sealed bags or boxes because dry air will dry your pearls out, and they will become brittle and yellow. Don’t put your pearls together with other gems as they may scratch your pearl jewelry. Don’t hang your pearl necklace, as its string can get stretched. Put your pearls in jewelry bags made of soft cloth (e.g., silk). Have your pearl necklace restrung at least once every two years, or even once a year if you wear it often. Restringing eliminates accumulated dirt that may otherwise harm your pearls over time.