Almost any shelled mollusk can, by natural processes, produce some kind of "pearl" when an irritating microscopic object becomes trapped within the mollusk's mantle folds, but the great majority of these "pearls" are not valued as gemstones. Nacreous pearls, the best-known and most commercially-significant pearls, are primarily produced by two groups of molluscan bivalves or clams. A nacreous pearl is made from layers of nacre, by the same living process as is used in the secretion of the mother of pearl which lines the shell.
A "natural pearl" is one that forms without any human intervention at all, in the wild, and is very rare. Many hundreds of pearl oysters or pearl mussels have to be gathered and opened, and thus killed, in order to find even one wild pearl, and for many centuries that was the only way pearls were obtained. This was the main reason why pearls fetched such extraordinary prices in the past. A cultured pearl, on the other hand, is one that has been formed with human intervention on a pearl farm.
One family of nacreous pearl bivalves, the pearl oysters, lives in the sea while the other, very different group of bivalves live in freshwater; these are the river mussels such as the freshwater pearl mussel. Saltwater pearls can grow in several species of marine pearl oysters in the family Pteriidae. Freshwater pearls grow within certain (but by no means all) species of freshwater mussels in the order Unionida, the families Unionidae and Margaritiferidae.
The unique luster of pearls depends upon the reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light from the translucent layers. The thinner and more numerous the layers in the pearl, the finer the luster. The iridescence that pearls display is caused by the overlapping of successive layers, which breaks up light falling on the surface. In addition, pearls (especially cultured freshwater pearls) can be dyed yellow, green, blue, brown, pink, purple, or black.
Freshwater and saltwater pearls
Freshwater and saltwater pearls may sometimes look quite similar, but they come from different sources.
Natural freshwater pearls form in various species of freshwater mussels, family Unionidae, which live in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water. These freshwater pearl mussels occur not only in hotter climates, but also in colder more temperate areas such as Scotland: see the freshwater pearl mussel. However, most freshwater cultured pearls sold today come from China.
Saltwater pearls grow within pearl oysters, family Pteriidae, which live in oceans. Saltwater pearl oysters are usually cultivated in protected lagoons or volcanic atolls.Value of a natural pearl
Quality natural pearls are very rare jewels. The actual value of a natural pearl is determined in the same way as it would be for other "precious" gems. The valuation factors include size, shape, quality of surface, orient and luster.
Single natural pearls are often sold as a collector's item, or set as centerpieces in unique jewelry. Very few matched strands of natural pearls exist, and those that do often sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. (In 1917, jeweler Pierre Cartier purchased the Fifth Avenue mansion that is now the New York Cartier store for US$100 cash and a double strand of matched natural pearls valued at the time at US$1 million.
Keshi pearls, although they often occur by chance, are not considered natural pearls. They are a byproduct of the culturing process, and hence do not happen without human intervention. These pearls are quite small: typically a few millimeters in size. Keshi pearls are produced by many different types of marine mollusks and freshwater mussels in China. Today many "keshi" pearls are actually intentional, with post-harvest shells returned to the water to regenerate a pearl in the existing pearl sac.Pearl gemstone meaning
The pearl is the oldest known gem, and for many centuries it was considered the most valuable. Unlike all gems, the pearl is organic matter derived from a living creature - oysters and mollusks.
There is much folklore and tradition about the pearl. In fact so much history accompanies this stone that five months claim it as a birthstone - February, April, June (traditional), July and November.
The pearl is an astral stone for the signs Gemini and Cancer, and astrologers link it to the moon. It was said in some early cultures that the pearl was born when a single drop of rain fell from the heavens and became the heart of the oyster. Pearls have been called the 'teardrops of the moon'. Some believe that pearls were formed by the passage of angels through the clouds of heaven.
Over time, the pearl has become the symbol of purity and innocence and it is often sewn into bridal gowns, or worn as jewelry by the bride.