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All About Pearls

What factors determine pearl quality?
While no international grading system exists for pearls, there are seven factors that help determine a pearl's value. They are: size, luster, shape, color, nacre thickness, and surface characteristics and matching. These vary from pearl to pearl and should all be considered prior to purchase.

What is a cultured pearl?
A cultured pearl is a real pearl, made from the same substance as a natural pearl. The difference: Cultured pearls get their start with a little nudge. Rather than waiting for nature to take its course, man deliberately places an irritant—a mother-of-pearl bead is often used—in the mollusk to stimulate the secretion of aragonite (calcium carbonate) and conchiolin. These substances, when layered around the irritant, form a pearl. Today, cultured pearls can rival the beauty of natural pearls; indeed it can be very difficult to tell them apart.

What is a freshwater pearl?
A freshwater pearl is a pearl that has been formed in a freshwater mollusk, rather than an oyster that lives in the sea. Typically, people think freshwater pearls are rice-shaped, but in fact they come in all shapes, including round. Like marine pearls, round freshwater pearls are the rarest, most desirable and most valuable shape. It is difficult to find perfectly round pearls of similar size and color to match for a strand, which is why matched strands are more expensive than other types of pearl jewelry. Unlike oysters, freshwater mollusks can produce more than one pearl at a time, but the process is still at Mother Nature's mercy. Out of the thousands of animals that are implanted with irritants, it is still rare to get a commercially acceptable pearl.

How much can I expect to spend?
Today, pearls are wildly popular, both with traditionalists who prefer classic strands and those who favor more modern designs of pearls combined with other materials. Pearl jewelry prices are affected by many factors including color, style, length, and size, among other things, however, compared to other gems, pearls are very affordable. When purchasing jewelry, keep in mind that pearls are meant to be worn, so don't skimp on quality. Buy the best you can afford. You can get excellent pearl jewelry for much less than you would pay for jewelry made from other desired gems—you don't need to spend a fortune.

Why do price discrepancies exist?
Quite simply, because quality can vary so much. Strands of large, round, perfectly matched pearls with 100 percent solid nacre and beautiful luster are rare and will cost more than pearls that are irregularly-shaped, mismatched in size, are dull or have obvious blemishes. Pearls from jewelry stores may be more expensive because retail outlets have much greater overhead costs. It is best to compare two or three pieces from different sources; once you do, the differences in quality will become readily apparent. Don't be fooled by high prices—they don't always signify quality gems.

What color pearls should I buy?
Color is an individual choice. Beautiful pearls exist in a wide variety of colors, but traditional creamy white pearls are still the most popular. Although individual color preferences vary, it is best to choose pearls that will flatter the skin tone of the wearer.

How do I care for my pearls?
Given some simple care, pearls can last for generations. Although they have a low hardness compared to other gems, the density of pearls makes them surprisingly durable. But pearls are perishable. Substances like perfume, vinegar, hairspray, inks, and perspiration can damage the nacre, as can chlorine. It is best to remove pearl jewelry before swimming and showering, and to put pearls on only after makeup, perfume and hairspray have been applied. Unlike a gemstone, a pearl cannot be polished; once the surface is damaged, it cannot be restored to its natural beauty. Store pearls in a separate pouch or box away from other gems that could rub against them and scratch their surface. To clean pearls, rub them with a soft cloth. If soap is needed, use a non-abrasive cleaner such as hand soap. Let your pearls air dry fully before you wear them again. Never use bleach, abrasive cleaners, or an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. It may be necessary to have pearls restrung if they are worn frequently.

Why should I buy from Moon River Pearls?
Quite simply, because we offer exceptional quality at terrific prices. Moon River Pearls' mollusks are painstakingly nucleated; our pearls are carefully harvested, graded, matched, strung, individually tied and finished with the finest materials. The result is a quality piece every time. We know the pearls you buy are a special purchase; that's why we will never skimp on product quality, packaging, or shipping. We are so sure you'll be thrilled with your Moon River Pearls purchase that we offer a 90-day 100% money-back satisfaction guarantee.

Amazing Pearls
It is said that Cleopatra shocked Marc Antony when she bet him that she could give the most expensive banquet in history. To his astonishment, she dissolved a pearl in a glass of wine and drank it down right before his eyes. Not surprisingly, Antony conceded defeat. At the height of the Roman Empire, Vitellius, a Roman general, funded his entire military campaign by trading one of his mother's pearls. Renowned jeweler Cartier is said to have traded two pearl necklaces for the land on which his flagship store is built. One of the largest freshwater pearls ever discovered is The Hope Pearl. Measuring two inches long and between 3¼ and 4½ inches around, the single gem was last offered for sale for $200,000!

Bargaining Chips, Balms and Buttons: Pearls Throughout the Ages
Today's pearl admirer probably has no idea just how precious and rare these gems once were. Throughout much of history, pearls were considered priceless, rivaling rubies, emeralds, and even diamonds in value. A matched pearl necklace is said to have once been the most expensive treasure in the world, and there is evidence that people were buried with pearls nearly 6,000 years ago. Indeed, the earliest pearl jewelry was discovered in the tomb of a Persian princess who died in 520 B.C. The piece is now on display at Paris' famous Louvre museum.

The first gems known to have been used as jewelry, pearls were probably discovered by people searching for food. Since then, the mystical allure of pearls has spanned cultures, geography and time. A symbol of purity, perfection and elegance, the pearl is associated with the moon. Some cultures even attribute healing properties to the gems, believing they can cure ailments ranging from gastrointestinal problems to mental illness.

Worldwide Pearl Allure
Born in 1858, Kokichi Mikimoto, the eldest son of a noodle shop owner, is credited with perfecting pearl culturing techniques and making pearls available to the masses. Until the 20th century, however, the pearls that were coveted and used as adornment were natural pearls, found mainly in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Mannar, which is located between India and what is now Sri Lanka. (These regions were the heart of pearl production for over 4,000 years.) The United States was once a major source of pearls, when it was discovered the Ohio, Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers were rich with the freshwater gems. Europe is also known to have produced quality pearls; historians believe Caesar invaded Britain in part to gain access to the freshwater pearl beds in Scotland. Pearls have been found in Germany, France, Norway, Sweden, Austria and Russia.

The people of the Middle East region are believed to be the first to have valued pearls. In ancient times, newly forming societies placed pearls in high esteem, and the gems became important status symbols. Both Islamic and Hindu religions celebrate pearls: In Islam, pearls represent perfection and completeness, and in Hindu, the pearl is associated with the moon. Eventually the passion for pearls spread from the Middle East to the rest of the world; in fact, relics adorned with the gems have been found nearly everywhere!

The Chinese are said to have prized pearls since the beginning of history; the gems were especially popular during the Manchu dynasty which ruled from 1644 to 1911.The Shu King, a 23rd century B.C. book, even describes a province considered “the lowest of the highest class” thusly: “Its articles of tribute were…gold, silver, and copper…baskets were filled with silken fabrics, azure and deep purple, and with strings of pearls that were not quite round.”

The Arabs, from whom we get the legend of the pearl and the moon, perhaps have valued pearls more than any other culture. Indeed, pearls are referenced throughout the Koran, which describes heaven this way: “The stones are pearls and jacinths; the fruits of the trees are pearls and emeralds; and each person admitted to the delights of the celestial kingdom is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths, and emeralds; is crowned with pearls of incomparable luster, and is attended by beautiful maidens resembling hidden pearls.”

People in the Philippines have harvested large pearls since the 1300s. Australians and Polynesians, on the other hand, traditionally valued mother-of-pearl more than pearls, and used the substance in decorative work. It is believed that, if pearls were found, they were tossed back in the water! Today, as the demand for pearls has risen worldwide, the focus in these countries has shifted to harvesting the gems.

In Roman times, pearls were worn only by the elite. Roman hierarchy prohibited those below a certain rank to wear pearls. In the 13th and 14th centuries, most countries in Europe passed laws regarding who could and could not wear pearls; the gems were a symbol of rank and status reserved for a select few. European royal families wore matched sets of pearls, and the gems were used to adorn religious objects. In the 1700s and 1800s, the middle classes of Europe and America at last had the money to obtain pearls. Seed pearls were the most sought-after type, and were fashioned into intricate pieces that resembled finely tatted lace.

The pearl craze hit America in the 20th century (although Native Americans had long been adorning themselves and their weapons with pearls). During this time, the gems were favored by U.S. society as well as royalty across Europe and Russia. The United States became a hub for producing mother-of-pearl buttons, with the majority produced in Iowa, until the invention of plastic phased out the more expensive mother-of-pearl variety.

Pearls Today
Today, pearls are still associated with the moon, as well as birthdays (June), weddings and anniversaries. Modern society considers the pearl a symbol of class and elegance, but at the same time pearls are showing up with less formal attire at less formal occasions, and are increasingly being incorporated into modern jewelry designs. Since recorded history, pearls have been coveted. Today they are enjoying a spike in popularity thanks to young, hip buyers and innovative artisans who are weaving them into fresh pieces with non-traditional materials.

Pearls in the Future?
Pearls are highly prized and will continue their reign as a traditional classic for the foreseeable future. Matched pearl studs, bracelets, and necklaces are still wildly popular for weddings, anniversaries, and other occasions. Thanks to Mikimoto and his successful campaign to bring pearls to the masses, the gems are making their way into modern, funky jewelry designs as designers buck tradition in the name of fun, creating interesting, unexpected pearl pieces that are highly affordable. With all this activity, pearls will certainly continue to be one of our most treasured gems.