About Pearls and their history

What is a pearl?

A pearl is a precious jewel that is created by molluscs such as oysters, mussels and clams. They are the only gemstones created by living creatures. When a small irritant finds its way into the soft tissue of a mollusc, the animal begins secreting a substance called ‘nacre’ (calcium carbonate) over it to protect itself and isolate the irritant. Thousands of layers of nacre are deposited over the irritant over a two- to three-year period, ultimately producing a pearl. 

Recent research, however, has suggested that pearl production in molluscs is more intriguing than first thought. While isolating an irritant is likely one reason the animal makes a pearl naturally, it is by no means the only reason. Researchers suggest that natural pearl production often occurs spontaneously, without a trigger, further deepening the mystery and miracle that surrounds these deep-sea gifts.


Pearls come in an amazing array of colours, shapes and sizes. Usually, this is dependent on the type of mollusc species creating it and the environmental conditions the mollusc is exposed to. Most saltwater pearls are spherical or tear-drop shaped while freshwater pearls are usually irregularly shaped.

Natural vs cultured

Naturally occurring pearls are extremely rare. It is estimated that 1 in 10,000 oysters will produce a jewellery-quality pearl without any human intervention. As a result, the vast majority of pearls are cultured. While there are over 100,000 mollusc species in the world, only a handful produce pearls. Of these, roughly half are chosen to culture these exquisite treasures.

To culture a pearl, specialised divers hand-pick molluscs from the seabed. On board a large boat, skilled technicians ‘seed’ each mollusc with a polished bead that is usually made of the same or similar substance to clam shells. The molluscs are then returned to the sea and looked after for between two and three years. This involves cleaning them of any marine matter that could harm their health. 

Then the magic happens. The mollusc performs the natural process of creating one of the most elegant and refined gemstones nature has to offer. At harvest time, divers collect the molluscs and their treasures are revealed. Once the pearl is carefully extracted, each mollusc is delicately returned to the sea, some with a new seed to fashion a new jewel.

Akoya Cultured Pearls

Japan and China produce Akoya cultured pearls. These are the most familiar, classic white or cream coloured pearls used in traditional single-strand necklaces. However, some can have overtones of pink or green. Akoya pearls are cultured in the Akoya pearl oyster, Pinctada fucata, and are often perfectly round.

South Sea Cultured Pearls

The highly prized Australian South Sea pearl is cultured in the Pinctada maxima oyster and is generally white with overtones of gold, silver or pink, depending on which variety of Pinctada maxima created it – the gold-lipped or the silver-lipped. Gold pearls from the Pinctada maxima are rare and usually need to be grown in warmer, South-East Asian waters. 

Tahitian Cultured Pearls

Tahitian pearls come in a variety of colours and are formed in the black-lipped oyster, Pinctada margaritifera. These pearls can vary in colour from blacks to purples and reds and even greens. These unique, exotic colours are often paired with other pearl types as it is difficult to find enough of the one colour to create a uniform strand.

Chinese Freshwater Cultured Pearls 

Freshwater cultured pearls are formed in the Triangle sail mussel, Hyriopsis cumingii, and are mostly cultured in freshwater lakes or ponds in China. They come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colours, including white, gold and purple. They are usually more affordable than their saltwater counterparts as many pearls are often found in the one oyster. 

Pearl Value Factors

The factors that determine a pearl’s value are many and varied. Of course, there are standard assessments of a pearl’s characteristics but a pearl’s true value lies in the eyes of its owner.

To formally assess a new pearl, specialised gemologists first identify the pearl type and the mollusc it was produced in. Pearls are then weighed and measured using specialised equipment. Master pearls are brought in to compare the new pearl’s colour and then it is assessed for lustre, surface quality, shape and nacre.

According to GIA (a nonprofit education and research institute dedicated to the study and the advancement of gemological science), there are several pearl value factors to consider:

Size – Stated in millimetres, to two decimal places. Cultured pearls range from 2–16mm in diameter, depending on the mollusc used.

Shape – Described as round, near-round, oval, button, drop, semi-baroque or baroque. Pearls not falling into these groupings are described as they appear. Spherical pearls are the most valued but symmetrical drops are also sought.

Colour – A combination of the pearl’s dominant body colour, overtone, and orient.

  • Body colour takes into account hue, tone, and saturation
  • Overtone is a noticeable translucent colour that appears to overlie the body colour
  • Orient is a mixture of colours shimmering just below the pearl’s surface

Lustre – The light reflected from or near the pearl’s surface, evaluated by the intensity and the sharpness of reflection.

  • Excellent (reflections appear bright and sharp)
  • Very Good (reflections appear bright and near sharp) 
  • Good (reflections are bright but not sharp)
  • Fair (reflections are weak and blurred)
  • Poor (reflections are dim and diffused)

Surface – Blemishes or irregularities confined to the pearl’s surface, taking into account the size, number, nature, location, visibility, and type of surface characteristics.

  • Clean (blemish-free or containing minute surface characteristics that are difficult to see)
  • Lightly Spotted (only minor surface irregularities visible)
  • Moderately Spotted (noticeable surface characteristics)
  • Heavily Spotted (obvious surface irregularities that might affect durability)

To learn more, visit www.gia.edu

Famous Pearls

Some pearls have acquired a backstory that is often as brilliant as the object itself. But how much is fact and how much is folklore? 

Cleopatra’s pearls

One of the most well-known stories comes from ancient Rome. Cleopatra reportedly owned two magnificent pear-shaped pearls. In an elaborate display of love for Mark Antony, who revealed his insecurity in their relationship, Cleopatra dissolved one of these two treasures in a goblet of wine, toasted him, and drank in his honour. 

The Crown Jewels

The Crown Jewels began their history with King Francois I of France who donated six of his most beautiful sets of jewellery in the 16th Century. In the late 18th Century, it was determined that these jewels were to be auctioned off. They were put in display rooms for would-be bidders to observe. However, there was little protection of these rooms and most were stolen. Two thieves were caught and most of the jewels were recovered. Napoleon I and III added to the jewels until they were finally successfully auctioned off in 1887.

The Southern Cross pearl

This pearl comes from our own shores of Australia. It is made up of nine pearls of the same size fused together in a crucifix shape. The man who found it gave it to his superstitious boss who was terrified at what he deemed a ‘message from heaven’. He quickly buried it to prevent anything untoward happening to him. After 18 months and no unlucky circumstances, he dug it up and showed it to a friend who promptly dropped and broke it. Unfortunately, he then injured his hand substantially a few days later. The cross was stuck back together with diamond cement. However, it is said that no expert could find the break.

The Pearl of Asia

The largest pearl in the world comes from Asia. It likely came from a Pinctada maxima considering its white colour. This pearl is said to have once been owned by the Emperor of China but is now under guard in bank vault. The pearl weighs 605 carats and is mounted with jade and pink quartz. 

Pearls in Culture 

Throughout time and place, pearls have been attributed many different meanings and properties. It is the birthstone of the month of June and is said to possess many health benefits. Traditionally, pearls have been used for medicinal purposes in many cultures around the world.


Anselmus de Boot was a 17th Century physician who is credited with establishing modern mineralogy. He believed that pearls could cure everything from failing eyesight to even death itself! The enchanting properties of pearls was further reinforced by Christopher Columbus who reportedly believed that molluscs formed pearls from dew drops.


Various Asian cultures have used pearls for a variety of purposes. The Chinese believed that pearls came from the brain of a dragon. Traditionally, pearls were believed to have the power to treat indigestion and hemorrhages. Today, crushed pearl is still used in cosmetics in China. While using pearls as medicine may not have a lot of science behind it, Japan’s Kokichi Mikimoto (the man who is credited as starting the cultured pearl industry) reportedly swallowed two pearls every morning since he was 20. He lived to the ripe old age of 96.

Middle East

Traditionally, pearls have been used in the Middle East to cure urinary tract infections, impotence, eyesight problems, nervousness and depression. In harmony with Japanese Mikimoto’s belief, the Atharvaveda (an ancient Sanskrit text) states that ingested pearls contribute to long life and prosperity. The almost magical properties attributed to pearls makes sense when understood in the context of the Middle Eastern belief that pearls were teardrops fallen from heaven. 

Whatever your belief, pearls have certainly inspired a range of responses. One thing is certain though – the pearl is a beautiful response by the mollusc to the misfortune of receiving an irritant it can’t shake. Perhaps that metaphor is the greatest lesson we can take from this most beautiful of all gems.

Our Pearls

House of Pearls adorns its customers in high-quality pearls from

Our jewellery pieces are inspired by the fun and colour of life and are designed to reflect our unique vision of the earth’s natural beauty and the twinkle in each of our customer’s eyes.

Each pearl piece is a work of art created just for you and is made to be worn. Let the lustre of each ocean gem come to the surface and feel radiant and beautiful every day.

Our designer

My name is Fiona, mother of one beautiful daughter and founder of House of Pearls and A Touch of Gems. I have spent over 20 years delightfully immersed in the radiance and creativity of jewellery design. From pearl and diamond grading to gem studies, I have had the pleasure of working throughout the industry – and the world. 

Caring for Pearls

Wonderfully, pearls love to be worn. They are a natural substance and, like our skin, need a little moisture to remain in top condition. So they actually benefit from being close to us. Make sure, though, to put on perfume, cosmetics or hair products before putting your pearls on as many chemicals and all acids will harm them. Excessive sweat can damage pearls too, so be sure not to wear them during a workout!

Pearls can be cleaned with a fresh, soft cloth. Warm soapy water can be used if necessary.

It is important to note that while pearls can last a lifetime, the silk they are strung on will not. Pearl strands should be professionally restrung each year to ensure the jewellery’s longevity.