Kintsugi: golden joinery…golden repair

We’ve done a slow, under-the-radar sort of launch for our Kintsugi collection of repaired ‘broken pearls’ but now is the time to tell all.

Maybe three years ago I was at a Hong Kong Gem Show and discovered the existence of broken pearls after finding a bag of all sorts of non-mainstream pearls at the back of a tiny stall featuring a mix of different sea pearls.

Gold, white and blue South Sea 'broken' pearls. Great colour and lustre.

Gold, white and blue South Sea ‘broken’ pearls. Great colour and lustre.

Intrigued, I sat down and started to go through the bag (it had well over a thousand pearls in it). There were tiny little round gold and white and pink, and blue and green south sea pearls, no bigger than 6mm. there were various keishi and there were these weird big and small pearls with missing nacre, some with huge holes in them, so you could see the nucleus, or the hole was full of concholin, layer on layer showing like the rings in a tree, or the pearl was hollow. No nucleus no anything. Just a nacre shell and a big hole. They were fascinating. The sort of pearls – lumps of nacre really – which shouted ‘take me home and let loose your imagination’. So of course I did.

Mostly large and gold South Sea pearls.

Mostly large and gold South Sea pearls.

The bag of mixed pearls, all south sea of various colours, sat on my workbench for months. Periodically I tipped them out and looked at them. They looked right back at me.

Then I went to Bangkok and found a supplier of gold leaf (in Buddhist temples – as a way of offering – you buy a tiny ‘page’ and apply it to a statue). Again, I was intrigued and bought some. I had a vague idea that I would apply some to a statue at home and that would be a nice thing to do.

I never got around to doing that. The leaves of gold leaf sat on my workbench. The bag of broken pearls sat on my workbench. I had an ‘ahhhhh’ moment and the Kintsugi collection was a glint in my eye. No more than that as I had no idea how to fix the gold leaf to the pearls. I had bought some size, the traditional glue for gold leaf. It’s a treacly goo. I tried that. Total disaster. The inside of one hollow pearl became a mud mix of gold and goo which never dried. Finally I worked out how to apply the gold leaf, how to make it adhere and how to seal it.

kintsugi collection gold south sea pearls earrings

Big gold South Sea half pearls with thick gold leaf to the front.

On the way I’ve got much better at handling the gold leaf, which is so fine and light it will waft off and fly around if you so much as breathe on it. There’s times when, unknowingly, I’ve walked around with a gold tip to my nose. Whenever I’ve worked on it I certainly get gold fingers and gold fingernails.

kintsugi collection gold south sea pearls bracelet

A Kintsugi Collection unique bracelet of gold South Sea pears and vermeil

The collection was called the broken collection (no…), the gold leaf collection (a bit of a jam pot label name) until a website reader said that the technique reminded her of the Japanese art of Kintsugi. What was Kintsugi (isn’t google wonderful!) We had a name. Perfect.

kintsugi collection gold south sea pearls necklace

Necklace of gold South Sea pearls, these were mostly hollow.

So now, after much experimentation, perspiration and fun in the designing and making, the collection is here.

Lavish gold leaf on this gold South Sea pearl. Sometimes you look at the pearl and wonder..what happened here?

Covid: Effects on Pearlescence

Covid has affected us. But I also have some exciting news about new stock of Robert Wan Tahitian pearls. During lockdown here in the UK I worked alone to keep things going and now we are very much a ‘face mask and wash your hands please’ place. So far the horrible virus hasn’t managed to get to us.  The government is re-opening everything far too quickly so we have decided we are going to carry on being reclusive and very very careful. We hope you understand if that means some delays to shipping and making of custom orders.

The other big problem is that, while I went to Hong Kong in Feb/March and could buy Tahitian, freshwater and south sea pearls and findings, I don’t know of any akoya sellers based in Hong Kong. Plus around now we would normally be compiling a shopping list for a trip next month. But Hong Kong has been effectively closed down since mid March, since there is a mandatory stuck-in-one-room quarantine for incomers. (and who can blame them for people from the UK?)

Now Hong Kong is coping with a huge (for them anyway) break out of the virus, so a hoped-for easing of the quarantine rules to allow the cancelled September show to go ahead in November is increasingly unlikely. Talking with some of my pearl friends in America and Australia this morning we are hoping for a vaccine and a show to go to in Feb/March.

I wonder if we will have vaccination certification stamped into passports as used to be required for smallpox when I was a child (remember smallpox? Not enough people do!)

Anyway, the pearl point of this rambly post is to tell you that in a complete break with everything we’ve done for the last decade, I bought some pearls sight unseen last month.

The larger lot of Robert Wan dark tahitians. The smallest are 12mm, going up to 15mm. That’s some big pearls

Out of the blue I was invited to participate in the first ever Robert Wan online pearl auction. Of course I was interested and eventually and cautiously bought two lots. It’s very hard to evaluate pearl quality in a couple of indifferent quality photos but I decided to take a punt and I’m glad I did. Out of around 100 big pearls (12-15mm drops mostly) I’ve made the pairs you’ve seen appearing on the website in the last week or so, and picked out some huge single pearls for pendants and enhancers.

 

Same lot with the pearls moved around on the tray

The colours are darkish, mostly greens with a few minor flaws and reasonably good lustre. They aren’t clean and they aren’t metallic but they are big and well coloured and if they were clean and metallic and well coloured they’d have been three or more times the price. So good deal for me is good deal for you all.

There was also a lot of lighter, also big drops:

Lighter and lustrous Tahitians.

Read up on Robert Wan here – https://www.robertwan.com and you’ll be able to find out more about the ‘father’ of Tahitian pearls. He is the man. I have to say his Hong Kong office is a delight to deal with and the pearls drill like a dream. I don’t know what they use for nucleus but I wish every pearl farmer used the same.

More sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging

 

Our new packaging. Light card and printed ribbon.

Our new packaging. Light card and printed ribbon.

One of the few good things about the whole covid thing has been that there has been a little time for reflection outside the hurly-burly pressure of the everyday routine.

Once we here had adapted to the interregnum of being confined to homes (basically everyone stayed home except me and I went back to the early days and did everything!) I did have time to think about some aspects of how we do things. Stay with me and (I hope) follow my thinking.

It’s very clear that decimating flying has had a positive effect on the environment. At the same time it is our proud boast that I select every single pearl we offer for sale. That’s me, in person, with my own eyes and hands, going through a wholesaler’s stock and selecting, in person, every single pearl. It is one of the things which I am most proud. No remote buying, no relying on others and certainly no remote drop-shipping while pretending to stock and ship everything.

But that core business-model means I have to sometimes move my eyes and hands, and the rest of me to where the pearl wholesalers are. That’s in the Far East. Mostly in Hong Kong, but also Thailand. (plus I have been trips-of-a-lifetime fortunate to visit actual pearl farms in Indonesia and Vietnam)

The whole flying-is-evil thing had me feeling kinda guilty, even though I could not see a way around having to…fly.

sustainable, lighter, pillow, packagin

Lighter ‘pillow’ boxes from now on.

However I can act to reduce the total Pearlescence air miles/aviation fuel impact by reducing the weight of our packaging. Which I have now done. We have switched from recyclable cardboard boxes – very, very nice boxes. But substantial and with a certain weightiness. To light card pillow boxes. We still add our unique printed ribbon so there is a certain something to untying the bow and opening the box but the total weight of every shipment of finished jewellery will be reduced by two thirds. Over a year I reckon that is more than enough to allow me to travel to buy new pearls and metal.

Especially when you consider that even much of our domestic shipping is now moved by air. Pillow boxes also save on shipping from where they are manufactured to the wholesaler, which in our case is in Ireland (so there’s another aviation saving when they are shipped to us) warehouse and our premises space is also massively saved.

opened pillow box

opened pillow box

Also, because every one of our packages of finished pieces will be smaller and lighter we will save overall on shipping costs for every single item we ship to you, where ever you are in the world. If that is indeed overseas, well, that’s doing a joint little bit to save the planet.

An added bonus for the majority of our customers is that this new packaging removes residual guilt about throwing away a box. It’s fully cardboard so pull off the ribbon (which can find a new use I’m sure) and throw it into the recycle bin with a clear conscience. We’ll  be including a chiffon sleeper bag so you can still have something – in fact a better thing – to keep your pearls in.

Since I am being totally transparent here, switching to pillows will also save us money, money which we can swing back to you all by not having to increase prices due to the collapse in value of the £ sterling over the last couple of years and the increases in shipping costs

Sustainability is something we all have to strive for. With this move to sustainable packaging if you feel that you absolutely must have an older style presentation box they will be available for a small extra charge to cover the extra cost of the box, the larger wrapping and the increased shipping cost.

 

Apology for absence

I offer today an abject apology to would be readers..in a whirl of Instagram, twitter and facebook my posting to this blog sadly slipped and slipped.

And I also apologise because this is going to be a bit of a rant. With a little time on my hands I spotted a pearl selling programme on a TV gem selling channel.

Can I please make very clear that these are grade D tahitians. This is not a perfect pearl.

tv selling tahitian pearl

Not round, not metallic and certainly not clean. note the huge flaws clearly visible on their studio demo pearl

What has me writing this is the claim that pearl professionals are buying these pearls. No-one who aspires to deal in decent pearls will be buying these . They are simply not good enough. Not good enough for Pearlescence certainly, and I sent these photos to a couple of pearl dealer friends and their comments cannot be included because readers are civilised people!

low quality tahitian pearl

Look at all the flaws on this poor pearl…And this was the studio pearl

It got worse. This was held to be perfect, just a few marks. ‘Worth Bond Street’.

 

Supposedly a pair. Different size and colour

Different size and different colour. ‘Great pair’

Our Tahitian pearls may indeed be dearer, but I would not even look at pearls of this low quality in a wholesalers in Hong Kong, let alone pretend to you that they were the best possible. Yes, our pearls are dearer. But these show you why.

(They’ve moved on to south sea pearls now, but I’m too cross to watch!)

 

Natural white pearls

Everyone tends to think that white pearls are the only pearls: but of course everyone is wrong. White pearls are pretty much the exception rather than the rule.

natural white pearls

Very unusual – rare even – all natural white pearls

Which is why this photo is something a bit special. All these pearls are naturally white pearls. Reading top to bottom there is my strand of natural white freshwaters, then a strand of naturally white akoyas, then naturally white south sea pearls, then naturally white tahitians.

The freshwaters have a faint gold blush, the akoyas have a touch of grey, the south sea are creamy rose and, as you can see the Tahitians have a silvery grey cast.

I’m glad I managed to grab this photo – the Tahitians have already continued their journey onwards and when I found them in September in Hong Kong it was only the second white Tahitian strand I’d ever seen.

Natural whites – as opposed to bleached white pearls – are the exception. The only other naturally white nacreous pearls I can think of are Margaritifera margaritifera super rare UK river pearls and the native pearls of parts of the US – around the Mississippi for example.

We have naturally white strands available still in Freshwater, akoya and South Sea Pearls. Click ‘Shop at Pearlescence’ above to see our stock

Akoya Pearl Farm in Vietnam

I’m just  back from an amazing working visit to an akoya pearl farm in Vietnam.

vietnam pearl farm

general view across the sea from the farm.

I spent three days at the farm so I can now describe for you the process for growing akoya pearls. Firstly it is similar to the process for south sea pearls.

Let’s start at the beginning:

vietnam pearl farm

These are the visible manifestation of the farm – the lines of buoys marking the suspended baskets of pearls, busily feeding, excreting, making pearls

All the oysters spend their adult life out at sea. They like nice, warm (23-29degrees C) water, just the right salinity, just tidal enough to bring in lots of lovely delicious plankton and sweep away their excreta.

I am always amazed at how the boat crews manage to find their way around the farm and find exactly the oysters they seek – to me it seems a confusing and anonymous maze of black buoys

 

 

When time comes for harvest the long baskets are collected and taken ashore, where the oysters are taken out of the baskets. The oysters will have been in the open sea for between a few months for the ones with four 1.3mm nuclei (this pearl farm is thought to be the only farm in the world producing such tiny pearls) to closer to a year for what will be 7mm up round classic pearls

vietnam pearl farm

Akoya oysters in their net basket

Those which look the healthiest at first blush are selected out for special opening while most will be opened and the pearls removed, either by hand,

vietnam pearl farm

Opening the oysters

or for small pearls, in a process which (rather unromantically  but very practically) reduces the flesh to a mush and allows the pearls to fall to the bottom of a large cement mixer type

vietnam pearl farm

the ‘Cement mixer’ after the washing process – only random bits of shell and the tiny 1.5mm akoya pearls remain

 

machine.

The farm I visited produces pearls from 7mm down to a minute 1.5mm in a range of colours from white to gold and shades of blue and violet to purple

Some of the oysters are selected out at this stage as possible donors. These shells will be more carefully opened and the pearl inside extracted carefully. It will be scrutinised for quality and size – colour, lustre, clean surface and is it over 7mm. The oysters which have produced such pearls are used to provide donor mantle tissue for the next generation. The obvious flaw to this is that, of course, the donor tissue inside the oyster which has produced the pearl is not related (except distantly) to this specific oyster, but it is reckoned – practically – that a pearl is 80% donor mantle and 20% host. And this process looks for the best and healthiest hosts – and thus to optimise the general stock on the farm. While the donor tissue secretes the pearl it is the host which keeps the donor tissue alive.

vietnam pearl farm

Here you can see the pearl being harvested

vietnam pearl farm

1mm pieces of selected mantle tissue – the tissue which secretes nacre – being prepared for implanting

The farm has its own hatchery – more and more farms are establishing hatcheries to ensure strong and selected stock rather than rely on wild spat. New stock is bred from selected oysters, reared in carefully clean conditions. Everyone at the farm washes hands, removes shoes and washes feet and some wear masks to work in the hatchery. New-born larvae are free swimming, then at 10 days the microscopically small oysters become spats and grab onto helpful ropes to grow on.

vietnam akoya pearl farm

Baby spat lead a pampered and protected life in the hatchery

Food for baby akoya oysters is three different types of plankton

And finally, they let me not only open some oysters and harvest the pearls (I was surprised at how soft and easily cut through the shells are) but sit and assess for mantle tissue donors – awesome responsibility.

vietnam akoya pearl farm

Here’s me doing some actual oyster opening and pearl harvesting

vietnam akoya pearl farm

They even let me do some harvesting and assessing for mantle donors

Thanks to Orient Pearl for their invitation and hospitality

 

 

This is going to be a running thread featuring makes by our customers

Charlotte’s Medley Strand

This is what someone with the talent for it and the design eye can make with some of those left over pearls which sit at the bottom of the pearl box looking reprovingly at you for years. We’re calling it a medley strand. Or you could call it a tutti-fruiti rope

Charlotte used vintage baroque akoyas (from a swedish antique store),small white ripples (from us..yay!), baroque golden slightly green south seas, pink and green big ripples, pale pink freshwaters and copper off-round, peach and white freshwater keshi, peacock circled tahitians, grey and blue tahitian drops (some of these from us), blue and silver baroque akoyas (from us Yay again!) and baroque white south sea pearls.

medley strand

We’re all agreed that if we tried this it would look like left over pearls strung together!

Where have all the gold freshwater round pearls gone..? (Or… why I go to Hong Kong twice a year)

A regular customer recently asked me for a pair of gold round freshwater studs, size around 8m. That sounded pretty straightforward, as I replied. Then I went to look in our stock. Not a single gold, either round or button. She even, and very helpfully, sent me an image of the colour

Helpful – much easier to see the colour than to try to describe in words

Where had they gone? Now I know that I tended to buy the more lavender end of the colour range in naturally coloured freshwater pearls. Indeed these were the hard to find ones in a sea of peach, apricot and -frankly – orange up to maybe about three or four years ago. But I would have seen and selected a few really good gold pairs….wouldn’t I? Well apparently not. None in rounds and none in buttons from 7mm to 10mm.

After a rather apologetic email to the client I contacted a couple of reliable wholesalers in Hong Kong to see what they had. Surely they would have plenty. Gold was a really common colour for natural pearls!

Umm, the really big wholesaler had nothing even like in rounds or buttons. The second, family firm, had seven in total out of a huge litre box full of AAA rounds. My contact sent me a photo of them in her hand and said she could make three pairs.

Here they are:You can see that only the top pair is remotely gold. It’s too pale though and one pearl is larger than the other (by 0.4mm)

The middle pair is a reasonable colour match but peach and one pearl is larger than the other. The bottom pair doesn’t match at all in colour or size.

[#sigh]

None of these fits the brief and I would not have selected any of them to show the client. I will probably keep the top pair, they are a nice vanilla colour, but the other two pairs will be making their return with me. And ask the client to wait, if she can bear it, for me to look in Hong Kong.

So, this is a cheery little anecdote about trying to find a specific colour of pearl for a client. Yes. But it also shows very clearly indeed why I insist on selecting every single pearl (and finding) we offer, either as loose pearls or finished pearl jewellery myself, with my own two eyes, in person.

First glimpse of new Akoya strands -waves

Very quick post to bring you early photos of some new akoya strands. These are natural colours (no dyes or bleaching) 2.5mm to 4.5mm super-shiny akoyas arranged in waves (hence their name) along the 85cm length. Colour variations are golds, creamy white and mixed (golds, creams, blues). Contact me for privilege purchase access

 

gold akoya

Feast your pearl loving eyes on these…

mixed natural colours akoya

or these, the mixed colours..You can see the waves of large/small running along the strand

mostly gold akoya

Beautiful

single akoya strand

Single strand of creamier coloured pearls

 

Baby giant clams at Civa Fiji

The pearl farmers at Civa on the lovely island of Fiji are about to make a pearl harvest but took a few seconds to allow me to share these photos of the baby giant clams which they are also raising with you all.

Baby giant clams now being raised in Fiji

Baby giant clams now being raised in Fiji

The partnership between Civa (Fiji) Pearls Limited and the Douglas Fam­ily of Matagi Island have given their first al­lotment of giant clams from their hatchery to the Vanua Trust of Laucala.

A project that started in 2016 is now pro­ducing around 25,000 giant clams juveniles every three months destined for the export market.

The hatchery is producing four species of clams (Tridacna Maxima, Tridacna Noae, Tridacna Squamosa and Tridacna Derasa).

giant clams

the baby clams are between 5cm and 8cm

A portion of the production is destined to reef rehabilitation projects and for the de­velopment of the resource through the tra­ditional fishing rights owners.

The hatchery is situated in Qamea Island and the coastal communities of Qamea and Naqelelevu will benefit from this long-term project by receiving yearly allotments of clams for their development.

baby giant clams

The giant clam hatchery. Double redundant fresh water system to ensure the clams are as happy as..well…clams

Civa (Fiji) Pearls Ltd owner Claude Michel Prevost said they are happy to follow up on their promises to deliver to the local coastal communities their share of this commodity.

“We are happy to see this happening. We think that it is important for companies who benefit from the development of this resource to include the traditional custodi­ans in the development of this resource.

“The development of aquaculture is in its infancy with few players. The Ministry of Fisheries is sending signals that it wants to develop aquaculture and this is great news.

giant clam

Aren’t they pretty?

Civa (Fiji) Pearls Limited was founded in 2006 by two Canadian expats Claude Michel Prevost and Danielle Belanger.

Lured by the extraordinary colours al­ready in production in Fiji, Claude and Danielle began their own pearl production in 2007 with a subsequent first harvest in 2010.

Most of this production is currently ex­ported to Europe, with a small amount retained and available from partnering re­sorts here in Fiji.

The pearl farm is situated on the wind­ward side of Taveuni.

 

Fiji pearls, civa

Civa pearls – fiji pearls are distinctive

Should we try to stock some?

A

AAA Grading system

Pearls are usually graded between A and AAA, with A being not very good to AAA which should be of the specific shape (usually used for round pearls) smooth surfaced (with only very small and near invisible flaws) and of high shine or lustre

AA+ Nearly as good as AAA but perhaps slightly off round when rolled and a few more flaws although these will still only be visible on close inspection. Look closely below- the halos are slightly oval because the pearls are off-round although the halos are still pretty regular

AA Average to good lustre, off round, blemishing to 20% of surface

A: This is the lowest jewellery-grade pearl, with a lower lustre and/or more than 25% of the surface showing defects. Probably a ’round’ pearl will be egg shaped, even from a distance

The problem with this system is, of course, that you may be faced with a smooth surfaced and metallic pearl which is off round to the point where it drops from AAA to AA+ or even AA. It will still be a beautiful pearl and one which will probably look round when worn but many buyers will be deterred by an AA grading.The lustre reflection below differs noticeably between pearls in terms of reflection and shape and the one to the left of centre has a grooved surface flaw’

A+ Low quality. Visibly off round and very variable lustre. Many flaws in the surface

(any website or other seller which talks about AAAA+++ grade pearls is talking rubbish and this should be challenged).

Tahitian pearls have a distinct and separate system, established by GIE Perles de Tahiti, and the Ministere de la Perliculture of Tahiti which grades from A (finest) to D ( poor) but to avoid confusion Pearlescence uses only the A-AAA gradings throughout the website.

We also have adopted the name ‘Essence’ for pearls which are exceptional. They have been selected for highly metallic lustre, clean surface and shape, in that order. Usually only found by selecting in person. Probably under 1% of pearls will show the mirror metallic lustre we look for

Abalone Pearls

Research and new farming for abalone pearls has started in New Zealand in the last few years..

  The abalone produces a distinctive and    tunningly iridescent blue pearl but is very hard to nucleate as its blood does not clot, so any damage will kill it.There are natural (wild) abalone pearls out there, with wildly baroque shapes and a distinctive horn shape tapering from a broad and sometimes distorted and ugly base to a sharp tip

Akoya

Akoya pearls come from the akoya oyster (Pinctada Fucata Martensii), which is the smallest pearl producing oyster (6cm to 8cm). This is why akoya pearls over 10mm are very rare while the normal size is about 6mm to 7mm It is a salt water mollusc.

Little akoya pearl oyster

Most cultured sea pearls are akoya pearls which are made with a bead nucleus, so that they usually have a good round shape. Big irregularities tend to be tails while less than perfect pearls have nacre with pits or convolutions. Good akoya pearls have a sharply reflective metallic lustre. Most akoya pearls come from Japan with a small production in China.

Akoya oysters like to live in water one to five metres deep and in temperatures of between 15 to 24 degrees Celsius

Modern pearl farming began properly in 1905 when Kokichi Mikimoto produced the first round farmed pearls. The company which still bears his name continues to be a world leader in the provision of the finest akoya pearls

Akoya pearls are harvested after only 9-16 months. The main thing to be aware of is that akoya pearls which are too cheap can have only the thinnest layer of nacre. Pearls with very thin nacre may even ‘blink’ which means that when rolled the nacre blinks to show patches where there is no nacre and you can see the nucleus. Below is a very bad example – the cream colour is nacre and the white is nucleus. Even when the nacre appears solid it can be very thin: peer closely and you can just about make out the thin line of the black nacre on the akoya pearl on the left (which split in half) The nacre on the pearl on the right is so thin the pearl is a ‘blinker’ .


Very thin black nacre Nacre so thin the bead is visible in places


You can see the thin akoya nacre

in these split pearls



Recently the trend for natural colour pearls has spread to akoya pearls and where once

Blue single vietnamese akoya pearl grey blue round akoya strand

every akoya pearl would have been bleached to make it white (and then often pinked to give a pink overtone) now akoya are available in delicate natural shades of pink, grey, or gold as well as a dark grey/blue which also has strong green highlights

Most white akoya are bleached, though some natural white are available. Black akoya are dyed and can look too uniform and dense in colour, while it is also hard to find gold akoya which haven’t been dyed. Suspect strong gold tones and opt for delicate blush tones



Natural pale gold akoya pearls. Natural mixed colour akoyas

B

Baroque

Baroque pearls are strictly all non-round pearls but the term is usually applied to pearls which are not round but which nevertheless have a good rounded surface all over. Freshwater pearls are most commonly baroque as freshwater pearls are mantle-tissue nucleated instead of bead nucleated. So round pearls are the exception, although more are being produced as techniques improve. The most valuable baroque pearls are South Sea and Tahitian pearls which are produced by Blacklipped and White-lipped oysters (Pinctada margaritifera, and the Pinctada maxima).


Baroque white freshwater pearl necklace

Commercial baroque pearls tend to be bigger pearls – there is a balancing act for the pearl farmer between leaving the pearl in the mollusc with the chance of a big round pearl and the likelihood that the pearl will go out of round and become baroque and therefore less valuable – but for the buyer, you will be getting a lot of nacre for your money.

Bead Nucleation

There are two basic types of farmed pearls: bead nucleated and tissue nucleated. (The other main type classification is between cultured or farmed and natural or wild pearls)

Nucleation is the process which starts off the growth of a cultured or farmed pearl. It involves inserting something into a nacre-producing mollusc to trigger production of a pearl. This nucleus can be either just a tiny sliver of mantle tissue on its own or a sliver of mantle tissue plus a bead or other shaped foundation. In either case a nacre secreting pearl sac grows and a pearl is made within that sac.

Bead nucleated pearls include all Tahitian and south sea pearls, akoya pearls and many modern big freshwater pearls (brands Edison and Ming – see separate entry under Edison)) as well as fancy shapes such as coins or hearts.

Tissue nucleated pearls are mostly all freshwater pearls which are therefore all nacre, solid pearl. no bead inside. (Chinese and Biwa freshwater pearls)

Keishi pearls are an exception. They are the pearls formed inside a usually pre-existing pearl sac from which a pearl has been removed (think of how a balloon looks when the air seeps out over time and you get the idea of a keishi pearl.

oyster diagram

Archetypical shellfish
1 Shell
2 area of mantle tissue from which donor tissue is taken
3 mantle
4 gonad
blobs pearl nucleation placements

Mantle tissue is used because that is the area of tissue which specifically secretes nacre. It’s usually there to make the mollusc’s shell but will produce nacre wherever it is – a talent utilised by the pearl farmer.

Placement of the nucleus varies as well. Beads are placed in the sex organ – the gonad – of the mollusc and only one per mollusc. (You might think that this would stop the mollusc from wanting to reproduce but there is some research which indicates it make them more not less active!)

Tissue nucleated pearl grafts can be many to a mollusc and are placed in the mantle.

All sea pearls are grown around a bead. It used to be that beads were not used in the production of most freshwater pearls (exceptions include coin pearls for example) However the last couple of years have seen the development of bead nucleation in freshwater pearls, producing second or third graft round pearls of stunning colour, lustre and shape. High quality bead ‘nuked’ pearls are still exceptional and unusual and therefore very expensive, but can be up to 18mm.

Biwa

Or sometimes biwi-

A freshwater pearl grown in lake Biwi in Japan. Biwa pearl production stopped some years ago in the lake due to pollution but some farmers are having some success with growing these rare pearls again

Stick pearls are often generically mis-described as biwa pearls. They aren’t.

Bleaching

White pearls are colour treated by bleaching. This applies to both akoya and freshwater pearls. Sometimes after bleaching a faint pink overtone is added as this can make the pearl more attractive

Black-lipped Oyster

Pinctada margaritifera This oyster produces the Tahitian black pearl, which is neither black, nor comes from Tahiti.

Blinking

Term to describe poor quality bead nucleated pearls where the nacre does not even fully cover the nucleus. When the strand is rolled the pearls look as if they are blinking. Beware of akoya pearls which are cheap. They will almost certainly have very thin nacre which will wear through.

Blister

A pearl that is attached to the inner surface of a mollusc shell.

baroq

Often rounded on one side and flat on the other. Sometimes also called a fastener pearl . Most often used to make stud earrings, because in larger sizes round pearls can be too proud of the earlobe.

C

Carat

Classic term to identify the amount of gold in metal. Different metals are added to gold to harden it and make it more durable. Expressed as a fraction of 24 parts so that 24ct is fine gold or pure gold, down to the lowest standard which is 9ct in the UK, usually 14ct elsewhere.

Circle pearls

No one knows exactly why some pearls develop circles. These can be bands of colour or grooves, as the pearl has gently spun on its axis in the pearl sac. While circle pearls tend not to be the most expensive they are not as yet imitated and have stunning variety .


These Sea of Cortez drops show circles, both as grooves and in bands of colour

Colour.

Natural freshwater pearls tend to be shades of white through to pale pinks and peaches and golds The intensity of the colour depends on the species and strain of host mollusc plus the farm water and food.

Colour Treatments

Many pearls are coloured treated as part of the processing between farm and retailer. There is however, now a trend towards completely natural colour untreated pearls.

Freshwater treatments

Grey – Silver nitrate and gamma radiation

Black – dyed. A good dye process will bring out a range of colours and even peacock effects Over dying will produce a heavy black monochrome. Beware of ‘tahitian black’ colour pearls which are freshwater pearls dyed to imitate Tahitian pears. Tahitian black pearls are common on auction sites

Gold Bead nucleated pearl producers are trying to emulate the deep gold of south sea pearls to produce huge valuable pearls at great prices. They are close but the colour isn’t quite right yet. Be suspicious if the pearls are too cheap for what they appear to be.

Bright deep colours – various dyes can be used to colour pearls the same as fabrics

Akoya.

Most akoya white pearls will have been bleached, although natural white akoya can be found. White bleached akoya pearls are often ‘pinked’ – delicate tinted to a faint pink overtone which softens the colour and is supposedly more flattering and desirable.

Black -dyed

Gold- often dyed to a deep gold which resembles gold south seas. Natural gold akoya are a much softer and paler colour

South Sea

Gold pearls are often dyed to enrich the colour to the most valuable deep gold. One strand generally looks fine on its own but in a hank the dye becomes more obvious. Always ask about dye and a reputable seller will not mind and will know.

Coin

Usually a round flat pearl shaped like a coin, also used to describe fancy hearts, squares, lozenge and other shaped pearls

Conch Pearls

Rarest of the natural pearls, conch pearls look a bit like jelly beans. They are not nacreous but have a distinctive flame pattern on the surface. The colours range from orange, through yellow to pink


Conch pearls

Cook Island Pearls

Specific group of south sea islands which produce their own distinctive pearls from Pinctada Margaritifera. The pearls show the same colours as Tahitian pearls but are softer looking in shades, while also being more grey/black than green


necklace of Cook Island pearls.

Cortez Pearls

Very rare pearls produced by one farm in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico, from Pteria sterna, the rainbow lipped oyster. (the indigenous pearl oyster). These pearls fluoresce red under UV light. The pearl colour default is a light silvery grey but, true to their name, Cortez pearls can show a rainbow of colour, including a strong mid-blue. The farm has been operating since 2004 so the total number of pearls is very small so the price is correspondingly very high.

Rainbow colours from Perlas del Mar.

Cross

Cross can be diagonal or crucifix. Some cross pearls which also have nacre between the limbs have been sold as ‘butterfly’ pearls


Peach cross pearls Butterfly pearls

Cristaria plicata

The cockscomb pearl mussel was the mollusc originally used by the Chinese when they started to culture freshwater pearls. The pearls produced are known as rice crispie pearls because of their resemblance to the cereal

Cultured

Cultured is really just a jewellery trade word for farmed. It is any pearl formed after a human puts a bead nucleus with mantle tissue or just mantle tissue into a mollusc. Any farmed pearl is cultured. Any real pearl feels faintly gritty when rubbed gently on your teeth (faintly gritty, not filing your teeth down abrasive) and the drill hole tends to be very small (usually 0.7mm) (because pearls are still sold by weight at wholesale) (Natural pearls are pearls made by nature on its own, with no human activity at all -See separate entry)

Culturing Process

Freshwater

In freshwater mussels, insertion of only mantle tissue is enough to trigger the making of a pearl sac and therefore pearl production. It used to be that beads were usually not used. However the last five years have seen the development of bead nucleation in freshwater pearls, producing second or third graft round pearls of stunning colour, lustre and shape. High quality bead nuked pearls are still exceptional and unusual and therefore very expensive, but can be up to 20mm.

Even larger pearls are being produced with pearls nucleated with a compound which expands as it absorbs water and thereby stretches the pearl sac. These pearls, third graft, often have stunning lustre. When drilled the compound is cleaned out. The pearls are called soufflé pearls because the are hollow and lightweight for size so far.


Huge 20mm natural blue soufflé pearl.

When drilled the mud is drained away so that the pearl is hollow and light in weight.

(The name was given to them by veteran pearl dealer Jack Lynch of Sea Hunt Pearls) However most freshwater cultured pearls are still solid pearl nacre, even pearls up to 15mm. This means that they are arguably more durable but the chances of perfect round shapes are much lower

metallic white tissue nucleated freshwater pearls

While Salt water oysters will only manage to make one pearl each (which keeps up their scarcity and value) freshwater mussels are more obliging and will make 20 or more each, when tissue nucleated.

Some farms and companies are developing their own strains of mussel, selecting for quality, while other farms will buy in their mussels ready nucleated. This careful breeding is producing more strongly coloured natural colour pearls. After harvest in China pearls go from individual farms to pearl factories where they are bleached to be white pearls, or otherwise coloured or processed, drilled and sorted, and assembled into strands.

Saltwater

Several distinct types of pearls grow in salt waters. Farming methods are pretty much the same for all of them The process of growing sea pearls in oysters was discovered (or re-discovered as there are arguments about this) by Mikimoto in 1893. All pearls which grow in salt water start with baby oysters which are either artificially bred in a hatchery or spawn naturally then are collected by placing various lures in the water to attract the spats as they are called.


Spat

The baby oysters are grown on for two or more years until they are big enough to manage to accept a grafted bead nucleus. With all sea pearls the pearl is grown around a nucleus – a starter bead plus a tiny fragment of mantle tissue which grows to form a pearl sac around the bead. As the mantle tissue is tissue for making nacre/shell it carries on doing this, secreting nacre on the inside of the sac and onto the bead. Mantle tissue makes the pearl sac because its job normally is to secrete the mother of pearl to make the smooth and lustrous lining of the oyster’s shell. . Early in the morning of the day an oyster will receive a nucleus, it is taken out of the water and then left for about half an hour, by which time it should have opened its shell a little. The shells are wedged open. Any unopen shells go back into the water to be left for another attempt in a few days Nucleating oysters is a skilled task – even opening the shell too far can kill the delicate creature. The bead-plus-mantle tissue scrap is inserted into an incision into the body of the oyster, either at its gonad or by the connective tissue.


Inserting the bead and nucleus into the host oyster

Remarkably having a bead stuck into its sex organ seems to make the oyster more active sexually rather than less! A nucleus is a (usually) round bead made from shell and cut and polished into a smooth round -usually about 8mm in diameter for first grafting.

The oyster is secured in a clamping device in front of the operator and either the wooden wedge is left in place or a retractor which allows the shells to be forced further apart is inserted. If the oyster is opened too far it will die. The aim is for this process to take under a minute and it is reckoned that it takes a month at least for the oyster to recover. The actual process is that the grafter, working through the tiny opening between the two halves of the shell, makes n incision of about a centimetre into the oyster’s gonad or into its connective tissue then places the mantle tissue and nucleus (dipped in water and held by a suction tool) into this slit. The two insertions must be touching, or a pearl sac will not form. Then the oyster is put back into the sea. There are various ways it is held but they all work to allow the oyster to feed happily and grow. No-one knows exactly why some grafts become great pearls and others don’t. It is probably a mixture and combination of genetics, grafting skill, and growing conditions. Many farms keep a record to see who is the best grafter (!)

The implanted tissue forms a pearl sac around the nucleus and starts to secrete nacre. It will take between two and four years for the pearls to form. The tissue implant is only about 1mm square. It will form the pearl, which has no genetic relationship with the host mollusc. As long as the irritant is present the mollusc continues to add layers of nacre until a smooth lustrous pearl is formed. Only one pearl per oyster can be produced. Sometimes oysters can be re-nucleated after harvesting to produce a bigger pearl with a bigger nucleating bead, or, if no bead is used a keishi pearl can be produced (think of the inside of an inflated then deflated balloon) Oysters are fairly fussy about their conditions and if forced to open too much they will die, as they will if they are out of the water too long, get too hot or too cold, if the water in which they live becomes too saline or not saline enough (this happens when a river floods and any oysters living in the estuary may well die because of the temporary dilution of salinity.


These oysters are attached to a length of rope. Other farms use mesh or baskets

It takes about 18 months to two years to grow tahitian and south sea pearls. Tahitian pearls are required by local law to be x-rayed and have a minimum nacre depth of 0.8mm all round. South sea pearls tend to have much thicker nacre than this There is some controversy about how long akoya pearls need to stay in the water. Some are harvested after only six months but these pearls can have gaps in their nacre so the bead is visible (they are said to ‘blink’ when rolled) and they will wear out quickly. But they will, of course, be very much cheaper. The pearls are cosseted. They will be cleaned several times to remove algae, vegetable growths and barnacles, and the farmer must keep an eye on the weather conditions – some akoya farms now monitor temperature and salinity and move the oysters if conditions are not ideal.

E

Edison Pearls

Edison pearls are simply one brand of bead nucleated freshwater pearls from China. Bead nuked pearls started to appear five years ago and can be divided into two main categories, depending on the quality of their nacre: either smooth or rippled. From this you can split the smooth into Edison (a brand from the pioneer of this type of pearl), Ming, (the second brand, not allied to any particular wholesaler) and generic bead nucleated pearls.

(Just to remind, until a few years ago freshwater pearls were usually all nacre, with pearl growth triggered by the insertion of just a sliver of mantle tissue into a host shell. It was only sea water pearls (South Sea, Tahitian, Akoya and a few freshwaters such as coin pearls) which had a bead template nucleus as well as that sliver of mantle tissue)

Edison is the brand name given to a range of large bead nucleated freshwater pearls from one leading Chinese supplier. One strand of these pearls achieved £1/2m at auction. The pearls come from a Hyriopsis hybrid between Hyriopsis cumingi and Hyriopsis schlegeli.

The Ming pearl name tends to be applied to the better quality of generic bead nucleated pearls. It is more of a description of quality than a brand. (Edison is a brand, belonging to one pearl farmer/wholesaler. They tend to be the most expensive and can be the finest quality available in the world)

In general these new bead nuked pearls can be any quality from superb to – like any pearls – terrible quality, with pitted, ringed, thin and lumpy nacre and washed out colour with chalky lustre. That’s probably what you’ll get if you bought from an unknown seller on any auction site. Quality (and, of course, price) runs up to metallic lustred 15mm perfectly round. flawlessly smooth surfaced pearls


Necklace of 12mm to 13mm AAA Edison pearls


The very latest bead nucleated pearls natural deep mauves, lilacs and purple shades

only appeared in 2015


Pair of flawless deep gold round ming pearls -14mm

The pair of pearls in the above photo would pass as a top quality pair of South Seas any day – and are still very expensive, but not as expensive as south sea pearls.

F

Farm

Nearly every pearl available anywhere in the world is farmed – cultured. Pearl farms tend to be stunningly beautiful places.


Shot of the Kamoka Tahitian pearl farm on Ahe, French Polynesia

Pearl farm on Talesei Island, Indonesia…golds and white south sea pearls

 

Faux Pearl

A false pearl bead manufactured by coating the inside of a hollow glass sphere or the outside of a solid glass or plastic sphere with a pearlescent coating which is sometimes pearl powder. Faux is a fancy word for fake. Also called shell pearls. They are of course perfectly round in shape, with great lustre and even colour. White shell pearls are very white, which is a give-away. All fake pearls feel smooth when rubbed on the teeth and the drill holes tend to be larger.

Fiji

There is a young but growing pearl industry in Fiji, and the pearls produced have a huge and stunning range of colours, mostly shifted away from typical Tahitian colours into the chocolates and earthy shades


Newly harvested, straight from the shell, Fiji pearls

Freshwater

A pearl grown in a freshwater river, lake or pond margaritifera mollusc. Often more irregular in shape and more varied in colour than salt water pearls freshwater molluscs are nucleated by creating a small incision in the fleshy mantle tissue and inserting a piece of mantle tissue from another mussel. This process may be completed 25 times on either side of the mantle, producing up to 50 pearls at a time. The molluscs are then returned to their freshwater environment where they are tended for 2-6 years. The resulting pearls are of solid nacre, but without a bead nucleus to guide the growth process, the pearls are rarely round.

G

Gamma Radiation

Gamma irradiation turns the nacre of freshwater pearls very dark, and often also imbues a metallic lustre with rainbow orient. Strangely, it has no effect on salt water nacre but will turn the nucleus dark which shows through the layer of nacre, making the pearl look grey or blueish There is no danger of radiation contamination from irradiated pearls.

Granulated

or popcorn pearls have a knobbly surface which resembles..popcorn. This granulation is often mixed with patches of high lustre surface. When the Chinese freshwater pearl business was starting up most of the pearls were, at least to some degree, popcornish and oval in shape. Term also used for the earliest Chinese freshwater pearls which were called Rice Krispie pearls.



Loose, undrilled white rosebud /granulated pearls

Gold Leaf Pearls

This is the name we give to the extremely beautiful lustrous gold pearls which are natural pearls with a layer of aragonite with an incredible lustre – so it does indeed look as if a layer of gold leaf has been applied to the pearls.


These pearls show the stunning gold colour which

looks as if gold leaf had been applied to the pearl surface

Gold-lip Oyster

A large oyster (variety of Pinctada maxima) used in some countries to produce South Sea cultured pearls; it produces a yellowi nacre, and pearls that typically range from off-white to rich, deep gold in colour.


Loose undrilled gold south sea pearls waiting to be paired for earrings

Goniochromism

An optical phenomenon which causes the hue of the pearl to change colours depending upon the angle from which the pearl is viewe. Popularly called colour-change pearls

H

Half-drilled

A pearl which has only been partly drilled, as for rings or stud earrings. These sell for more than those which are fully drilled. The best have a flawless domed side.

Hallmark

The term hallmark is often confused with branding, but it is not a branding. Hallmarking is a specific process of assaying precious metals and marking them as having passed a required standard. It is a guarantee of quality of content. Hallmarking dates, in England, from 1300 when Edward 1 brought in a requirement for standardisation of silver for coin and wrought pieces, which were to be marked with the leopard’s head mark to show they had passed assay. Variations on the leopard’s head are still used today for sterling silver pieces marked at the London assay office, run by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. Different marks are used to denote fine silver, and the various grades of gold, plus platinum and palladium. A mark will show when and in which office the item was assayed, plus what metal and who made the item. The mark is either struck to the metal (the origin of ‘making one’s mark’ as the maker can optionally still strike their own sponsor’s mark before assay or the mark can be struck by laser. All Pearlescence precious metals over the required minimum weight carries the London Assay office hallmark of owner Wendy Graham (Initials wmg in an oval cartouche).

Harvest

Pearls are harvested when the pearl farmer judges that there is enough nacre. This can either be cyclical or annual depending on the weather and the mollusc – in China the traditional harvests are in the winter as it is thought that winter nacre on the outside means a sharper and more intense lustre.

The harvest is also a time to seed the new crop, as the mantle tissue from the best producing pearls will be used to start the pearls for the next crop.

While some farms (eg Cortez and the Kamoka Tahitian pearl farm) market their own pearls as a name and brand in its own right, most pearls worldwide go into processing to be mixed with others to make strands at the processing factories. Some pearl sellers will claim that all their pearls come from the farm they visited, but this is extremely unlikely as one farm will not produce enough pearls to produce a range for retail.(and it is unlikely that a pearl farm will be able to drill and match for strands)


Tahitian pearl harvest.

Hyriopsis cumingi

The triangle shell is the shell used to culture most freshwater pearls in China

Irradiation Irradiation has differing effects from freshwater to salt water cultured pearls. The gamma rays do not affect the nacre layers of a salt water cultured pearl, but in fact darken the nucleus of the pearl. An irradiated salt water pearl appears to be grey or blue. The nacre of freshwater irradiated pearls, on the other hand, if affected by the gamma rays and can become very dark. Some of these freshwater treated pearls will also have an intense metallic sheen and iridescent orient over their surface.

 

K

Kasumi

These are a sub-species of freshwater pearls grown only in Lake Kasumi-ga-Ura, some 40 miles northeast of Tokyo, Japan. They have a distinctive surface, like wrinkled satin. Kasumi like pearls are now being produced in China


Chinese Kasumi look remarkably like the distinctive pearls

from lake Kasumi but cost a fraction of the price

Keishi or Keshi

Japanese word meaning “something as tiny as you can imagine”, such as a grain of sand; used originally for very tiny gems that resulted by accident as part of the culturing process; now used to refer to all-nacre baroque pearls produced when something goes wrong in the process of culturing so that the seeding nucleus is ejected from the half formed pearl. South Sea kesihi pearls can be very large; Japanese keishi pearls can be minuscule. The shape ranges from resembling a cornflake (so they are also called cornflake pearls) to something more like a slightly deflated balloon. They tend to have fabulous lustre


White keishi pearls

Knots

Knots in the silk between pearls is a sign of quality in pearls. If there are no knots or the pearls are on beading wire and look stiff and without movement then they are not being assembled to show their best. The knots serve two purposes. Firstly the chances of losing all the pearls is minimised, only one or two maximum can be lost (Pearlescence always gets really annoyed at the scene in ‘Murder is Announced’ where the pearl necklace breaks and all the pearls shower onto the floor. Good for Miss Marple but very bad for pearls). Secondly each knot acts as a hinge allowing the necklace or bracelet to flex. They stop the individual pearls packing closely. Never get pearls strung onto real silk wet – this is not because the pearls will be harmed, it is very unlikely that just getting wet with water (either salt, fresh or swimming pool) will damage pearls after all, but the silk on which they are strung will rot in time especially the silk inside each pearl which is trapped and therefore takes much longer to dry. Please do wear your pearls all the time. Pearls need light oils to look their best and the oil in human skin is perfect. If you absolutely must wear your pearls in water then please let us know and we can re-string them on a very strong and water resistant synthetic silk substitute.

Play between the pearl and the knots. This is a sign that the silk may be stretching and it might be time to start thinking about getting them re-strung. We are happy to re-string pearls and will restring our own pearls at a reduced rate.


The picture shows a two strand necklace where the upper strand has been

strung unknotted onto silk and the lower has been knotted.

M

Mabe

A blister pearl which has been hollowed out and filled with a substance and backing. Mabe pearls are often made into earrings A mabe is a hemispherically shaped pearl which is grown against the inside of the oyster’s shell, rather than within its tissue Blister pearls are worked by cutting the pearl out of the shell with a circle-bit drill. The nucleus is then removed and replaced with a resin. The back of the pearl is capped with a piece of mother-of-pearl to complete the mabe pearl.

Maeshori

This is a Japanese term which means before (mae) treatment (shori). It encompasses treatments used on all akoya, freshwater and some South Sea pearls. Maeshori treatments vary from factory to factory. The processes tighten the nacre and pull moisture out to enhance the lustre. This has a side effect of tending to make the nacre more brittle, so that freshwater, pearls that have been overtreated will turn chalky very quickly. Maeshori processing on South Sea pearls is very common in Japan. It makes the pearls whiter, brighter, and more saleable. One basic maeshori process is tumbling in chips of walnut shell which cleans and burnishes. This is considered so standard that it is not normally a declared treatment

.

Majorica or Majorcan pearl

A high-quality fake pearl manufactured in Spain by Majorica, S.A. These nuclei are dipped in high quality essence d’orient ( varnish made up of the scales from bleak, shad, herring and salmon. 2,000 fish make one litre of essence, which is an organic substance similar to uric acid.)

Mantle tissue

The special tissue inside certain molluscs which secretes nacre Metallic Lustre A pearl has a metallic lustre when the lustre is so shiny that it resembles polished metal. Metallic lustre is not a criterion in the usual grading system

Ming

What are Ming pearls? They are usually the better quality generic bead nucleated freshwater pearls, but some people throw that description at any quality of such pearls. As a quality description it is really pretty meaningless. Calling a pearl a Ming pearl does not of itself guarantee any sort of quality.(see bead nucleation and Edison for further info)


A Ming pearl necklace

Momme

A momme is unit of weight, used for silk or pearls, and you will still sometimes see pearl prices quoted as per momme – with the price given against quality. One momme is 3.75 grams and one Kan is 1000 momme

N

Nacre

is composed of hexagonal platelets of aragonite ( a type of calcium carbonate) (in a crystalline form) and conchiolin (an organic protein substance which provides bonding). The specific lustre, iridescence, and colouring of nacre — and, therefore, of any pearl which it forms — depends on the number and thickness of the various layers, as well as on whether or not the layers overlap one another. A freshwater pearl is made up of many layers of nacre and no bead.


The layers of nacre can be clearly seen in this freshwater

solid nacre pearl which has split open

Natural

A pearl which is ‘wild’ ie one which has grown without any human activity or intervention is called a natural pearl. Natural pearls are very rare these days and so command high prices. There are still several wild colonies of freshwater mussels Margaritifera margaritifera in the UK and they are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Selling a UK natural pearl needs a licence. These molluscs can live for over 100 years. The earliest reference in Britain to freshwater mussels is by Julius Caesar’s biographer, Suetonius, who stated that Caesar’s admiration of pearls was a reason for the first Roman invasion in 55BC.