Pearls stand as symbols of wealth and status for thousands of years. A Chinese historian recorded the oldest written mention of natural pearls in 2206 BC. Royal families as well as wealthy citizens in Asia, Europe, and elsewhere treasured natural pearls and passed them from generation to generation.
Until the discovery of the New World in 1492, some of the outstanding sources of natural pearls were the Persian Gulf, the waters of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Chinese rivers and lakes, and the rivers of Europe.
Columbus discovery of natural pearl sources in the waters of present-day Venezuela and Panama intensified demand in Europe. These natural pearl sources had declined due to overfishing, pearl culturing, plastic buttons, and oil drilling.
The first steps toward pearl culturing occurred hundreds of years ago in China, and Japanese pioneers successfully produced whole cultured pearls around the beginning of the twentieth century. These became commercially important in the 1920s. From the 1930s through the 1980s, pearl culturing diversified and spread to various countries around the world.
Pearls always embodied the mystery, power, and life-sustaining nature of water.
The spherical shape of some pearls led many cultures to associate this gem with the moon. In ancient China, pearls were believed to guarantee protection from fire and fire-breathing dragons. In Europe, they symbolized modesty, chastity, and purity.
Pearls are products of bivalve mollusks (mainly oysters and mussels). They are built up of nacre (mother-of-pearl), which is mainly calcium carbonate in the form of aragonite crystals, and an organic horn substance known as conchiolin that binds the microcrystals concentrically around an irritant.
Pearls, natural or modern cultured pearls, occur in a wide variety of colors. The most familiar colors are white and cream (a light yellowish brown). Black, gray, and silver are also fairly common, but the palette of pearl colors extends to every hue. The main color, or bodycolor, is often modified by additional colors called overtones, which are typically pink (sometimes called rosé), green, purple, or blue. Some pearls also show the iridescent phenomenon known as orient.
There are four major types of cultured whole pearls:
Although pearls are not especially hard, only about 2.5 to 4.5 on the Mohs scale, they are extraordinarily compact and very difficult to crush.
Pearl’s toughness is usually good, but aging, dehydration, and sometimes excessive bleaching during initial processing might make some pearls more fragile.
The typical pearly luster is produced by the overlapping platelets of aragonite and film of conchiolin nearest to the pearl surface. The color of pearl varies with the type of mollusk and the water, and is dependent on the color of the upper conchiolin layer. Pearls may be natural (occurring without human intervention) or cultured; and they may occur in the ocean or in freshwater.
High heat can burn cultured pearls or cause discoloration, splitting, or cracking.
Pearl is generally stable to light, but heat from intense light can cause dehydration and cracked nacre.
Quality pearls are very durable, but proper care is necessary to keep them beautiful and lustrous.
Here are some important advice to care for your pearls:
The best way to clean pearls is to use warm, gentle soapy water for occasional, thorough cleaning.
Pearls should never be cleaned in an ultrasonic or steam cleaner.
For routine care, it is best to wipe cultured pearls with a very soft, clean cloth after each wearing.
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