The Good Life
with a Southern Drawl

Mad About Pearls

By Amy Bailey — June 30, 2014

Many people think that a pearl is created when a piece of sand gets into an oyster, but this isn’t true. Real pearls grow in oysters and mussels, which are incredibly adept at filtering sand out of their systems. What happens is that a tiny piece of coral or an unfortunate tiny living organism attaches itself to the meat of the oyster and, in order to protect itself from the irritation, the oyster covers the invader with layers of nacre, the smooth, luminous substance that makes up the pearl. This is how natural pearls are created, but it’s extremely rare to find a natural pearl. Almost all pearls today are cultured or cultivated pearls. In oysters, they’re grown by inserting a small bead  and a piece of oyster tissue into the mollusk; in Chinese mussels there are no beads, just tissue inserted. The shells are returned to the water, turned regularly, and harvested. Oysters produce one pearl, while a mussel can produce as many as 60 pearls of all different shapes and colors.

China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, French Polynesia, Australia, Mexico, and the Phillippines all produce pearls. Pearls from Japanese oysters made up the largest portion of the market for many years. In the 1970s, the Chinese started producing freshwater pearls in mussels, and today, 99% of freshwater pearls come from China. Most people involved in crafts use Chinese pearls. Freshwater pearls typically aren’t round, although as Chinese technology has improved, they are also producing round pearls and much larger pearls than those that could grow in Japanese oysters. Chinese pearls come in a variety of colors.

The Philippines produce a gold pearl whose color is extraordinary. Australia produces some of the largest and most beautiful pearls in the world off their northern coast. They’re not grown in hatcheries like they are in China and Japan, and harvesting them on the open sea can be dangerous work. Tahiti is known especially for its black pearls.

Pearls are soft, so the old adage is “last on, first off” — when you get dressed, you put on your clothes and make-up and put on your pearls last, then take them off first when you get undressed. Pearls will collect perfume and perspiration, so you need to wipe them off regularly and they should be moistened a couple times a year with soap and water. They’ll lost their luster if they’re left in a box or vault.

Pearls reflect light, they’re organic, the way they come out of the shell is pretty much the way any jeweler will display them. You can’t change the shape of them like you can gold, for example, which you can mold to whatever shape you want, or diamonds, which are cut and faceted. Pearls are as close to natural adornment as it gets. They have a natural luminescence that lights your face when you wear them.

This fall perhaps inspired by Gatsby, perhaps inspired by natural beauty, designers made pearls a must have of the season from Saint Laurent’s delicate pearl necklace to Lanvin’s over the top multi-strand to Alabama’s very own jewelry line Jordan Alexander Jewelry whose navy pearl necklace was seen on Katie Couric this week. But pearls are not simply a must have, they are timeless and they are unique. A true treasure of the sea that throughout history has been a symbol of nature’s mystery and beauty.

If you are looking for pearls Levy’s Fine Jewelry in Birmingham carries a selection of outstanding estate pieces from Tahitian strands to multi-strand saltwater to beautiful Baroque earrings. Jordan Alexander Jewelry in English Village in Mountain Brook is also a must shop for amazingly designed modern pearl jewelry.