How is a Pearl Made and What is it Made Of?

How is a Pearl Made and What is it Made Of?

It's incredible to think that something as beautiful as a pearl (and as valuable), could be made by a living organism. Later in this blog, we showcase one in particular, that we use in our beautiful designs, called a "cornflake" or "Keshi" pearl. But first, let's discuss when pearls came into existence as a fashionable gem and how they are created.

Pearls Through History

Pearls have been revered for thousands of years. From being embedded in royal crowns and adorning the embroidered waistcoats of men, to encased in the tombs of mummies and offered as a monetary payment, well before coins appeared. The earliest use of pearls seems to be in Persia, where they believed that pearls were cosmically placed inside the abundance of oyster shells, prevalent in the Gulf, by a magical and higher power. They were gifts from the Gods, sought after and harvested for the rich, earning them their royal status. 

In the 15th and 16th centuries, pearls became so influential both in their beauty and in their status and symbolism, that the powers that be, named an age named after them. It came to be know in history as The Pearl Age.

The West could not get enough of them and the winds of trading ships, took them far and wide across the world. China used them as protection against bad spirits as well as elevating human purity and in battles spanning the globe, warriors used them as protection gemstones, to help them win wars as well as survive them. 

How is a pearl grown and where?

Pearls can grow inside oysters, in both freshwater and saltwater. There are two types of ways of growing a pearl. Cultured pearls, which are grown mainly in industrial farms (the largest ones in China) and then there are the natural forming pearls, left to grow in the wild. Pearl freedivers used to dive for these before the turn of the century, often risking death, in depths up to 100ft deep with no breathing apparatus.

oysters growing wild on the ocean floor
Industrialisation and cultivation farming, changed the life of the modern pearl and now over 20 million cultured pearls are farmed every year globally.

controlled pearl farming - Phillipines 
The making of a cultured pearl and a natural pearl is only separated by human intervention. In cultured pearls, the oyster is farmed or incubated in nets in more shallow, organically rich waters. To start the round shape to a pearl, the oyster is opened carefully in a laboratory and a piece of plastic is inserted into the nucelus of the mollusc, as an irritant to start a process.
The mollusc moves it around and around inside, (a bit like having a stone in a shoe), all the while secreting a mixture of glandular saliva, or 'nacre,' (pronounced NAY-kur) which creates hundreds of layers that form around the plastic injected irritant, and harden over time to form a lustrous crust.
Are Keshi pearls natural, or are they cultured?
Keshi pearls start life in a farm, being nulceated, but the mollusc is strong-willed and does not like the irritant plastic or foreign object that has been implanted. It kicks it out of inside it's folds, while the living oyster still secretes the nacre which forms irregularly and bobs around aimlessly, not secured with in the shell, but confined only by it's walls. The waters that flow through the shell, as the mollusc opens slightly and collects plankton for feeding, move the pearl around and around, but as it is freeform moving, the shape it takes becomes this also. Keshi's are 100% naturally formed.
Keshi pearl - naturally formed after being kicked out by the mollusc
'Nacre:' what is it and why is it called that?

Nacre, is a French word, meaning the 'inside of a shell' or mother-of-pearl and is a form of marble and chalk mixed together (calcium carbonate), then given the name 'argonite.' It’s made up of a layering of proteins and minerals within the cells of the mollusc. It's very very hard to crack and funnily enough, the same minerals used to make the actual oyster shell also, but structured in a different way.

inside of a shell - nacre also is formed here too

The structure on a pearl is called 'terracing’ and this is how the proteins and minerals are woven together in a smooth surface, to form light reflecting layer upon layer (not unlike moonstone or labradorite). This is refered to as ‘iridescence.' This shimmery look comes in a variety of depths and attributes to their monetary value, as well as shape and colour.

But why are some pearls round and others not?

Scientists have been trying to figure this reason out for centuries. They believe that some oysters are "turned" inside and that some molluscs are more active in rotation than others, creating an ever moving flow of nacre. You could liken it to taking a piece of dough and rolling it around with both hands into a ball. This happens over a four or more year period to create a single beautiful pearl.


 a cultured pearl - completely round with beautiful nacre

There are many variations in shape and colour of pearls. All of these variations are to do with their environment; by aquatic plankton they feed on and subsequent structure of the proteins in the terracing described above, or by the calmness or rage of the seas or by the influence of human hands.

The most revered pearls are those 'one in a million' golden pearls, that have formed naturally round and have the most exquisite colouring build up of nacre depth and iridescence. 

Why are pearls so many different colours? Are they real?

There are many theories on this. The most likely factor is what the mollusc feeds on as the waters travel through their shells, during the plankton feeding process. Differing waters and the minerals in them, will create the colours, if they are left naturally. Sometimes, a cultured pearl farm, will introduce DNA from another mollusc, that created a particular coloured pearl, to create a hybrid version, not unlike the process of roses. Our Keshi pearls are natural and unadulterated and vary in colour, so we match pairs for earrings as closely as possible.

What's the likelihood of finding a pearl in an oyster shell in the wild?

Nowadays it is a 1 in 10,000 chance of an oyster making a pearl in the wild without human intervention and a human finding one and probably more than 1 in a million, to find an almost completely spherical one.

The most famous of pearls that was found in this state and the largest too at 17mm and weighing just over 33 carats, was the one below, which was sold at auction in 2014, for a staggering £811,000. A single pearl. Wow.


Why do we use Keshi pearls in our jewellery?

Trends in human behaviour have shaped our outlook on pearls. Once considered and revered by royals in ancient times and a fashionable item to wear at the turn of the 20th century in ropes and strings, to a mid century death of design associating pearls with the blue rinse, but now brought to the fore once more, in the more naturally forming state of 'baroque' or irregular. Pearls have forged their own path in our history and continue to do so. 

Our recent turn to healing the earth and to nature, recycling and green advocacy, have pushed the pearl into the more naturally accepted state of shape. The beauty that lies in a pearl is no longer about it's perfect roundness, it is what it signifies. A completely and astounding, natural wonder. 

At Franki & Felix we believe that each of our pearls has a story of it's own. When you buy from us, we pass to you to create your own joy story of wearing it yourself or giving as a gift to another. Keshi irregular pearls are here to stay with us, but watch this space, because some exciting new pink pearl designs will be coming next!

Franki xx

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