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A by-product of self-preservation

June 2017

pearl in mollusc

Pearls are a favourite for jewellery all year round, but they really come into their own in summer when a string of lovely pearls can change an average dress or outfit into something very special indeed.

Today glass pearls are made so well in such beautiful shades and designs that it can be difficult to know what is a glass pearl and what is a real pearl.

In many ways it doesn’t matter. If the necklace or bracelet looks wonderful, then that is really what it is all about whether the pearls are real or made from glass.

But that said there is something very special about wearing real pearls because of their origin. Pearls are naturally produced by a mollusc as an act of self preservation. Molluscs cover a huge group of invertebrate (without a backbone) animals across the world. They have soft bodies and no legs. There are many many different types but most live in water.

The molluscs that form the pearls are bivalve molluscs, i.e. molluscs that live in a shell which is in two parts so it can open and close. When an unwanted foreign body enters the shell, perhaps a particle of sand or something introduced by an intruder, the mollusc will feel the irritation and will start to form a material around the foreign object to isolate it and give protection to its body. This coating material is nacre, or mother of pearl, a really strong substance associated with calcium carbonate that is also iridescent, giving it that lovely sheen that is so admired everywhere.

The process is not fast and sometimes it can take years to form a pearl. They also come in a range of different sizes, including some very big ones. The world’s largest pearl, the Pearl of Lao-tze, was found in 1934 and is huge, nearly the size of a basketball. They are not all perfectly round either, generally the more perfect the shape the more the pearl will cost.

Pearls can be found in both saltwater and freshwater molluscs, including the saltwater oysters which we all associate with beautiful pearls, but also in fresh water mussels. 

Finding molluscs with pearls in is rare and so of course as natural pearls became admired and fashionable; it didn’t take long for ingenious humans to find a method to make sources of pearls more reliable. By inserting small beads or other objects into the mollusc which cause irritation, the process of pearl formation can be started deliberately. Pearls formed in this way are known as cultured pearls.

There is really very little difference between a natural and a cultured pearl; even experts can find it difficult to tell how the pearl was formed. Both types are made of the same natural materials with all the fabulous properties that we love in pearls.

Glass pearls today are also made so well that is can be hard to tell the difference. However, there are definite differences which explain why some people today still invest in real pearls.

For a start, real pearls give a wonderful cool feel to the wearer. Glass ones can heat up or become sticky against the skin, but real pearls will remain comfortably cool.

Some people love the unique formation of each pearl in a piece of jewellery, often in slightly different sizes, shade and lustre variations; while glass pearls are often made exactly the same in size and colour. This gives a slightly different, very uniform look, to a string of glass pearls.

Of course there is also the very famous way of determining whether a pearl is real or not. Gently bite a real pearl and scrape it slightly with your teeth, and you will feel and probably hear as well the sandy, grainy surface of the pearl. Glass pearls are smooth to the teeth. 

With the variety of shades of pearls available in both natural and manufactured jewellery, plus their wonderful background, it is no wonder that pearls remain a favourite across the world.

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