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Pearls have been prized for their beauty and rarity for more than four thousand years. From ancient China, India, and Egypt, to Imperial Rome, to the Arab world, to Native American tribes, cultures from around the world and throughout recorded history have valued pearls longer than any other gem.
Pearls are the only gemstones grown inside of a living organism. Pearls are formed within oysters or mollusks when a foreign substance (most often a parasite - not a grain of sand) invades the shell of the mollusk and enters the soft mantle tissue. In response to the irritation, the mantle's epithelial cells form a sac (known as a pearl sac) which secretes a crystalline substance called nacre, the same substance which makes up the interior of a mollusk's shell, which builds up in layers around the irritant, forming a pearl.
There are approximately 8,000 different species of bi-valve mollusks, of which only about 20 are capable of consistently producing pearls. Natural pearls are extremely rare. Because the layers of nacre tend to maintain the irregular shape of the original irritant, natural pearls which are round or spherical in shape are even more rare. Most natural pearls are irregularly shaped. Nearly all pearls now are cultured. A cultured pearl is any pearl grown with the influence of human intervention.
Tahitian pearls are produced in the black-lipped oyster ‘Pinctada margaritifera’, in and around Tahiti and the French Polynesian islands. The pearls are unique because of their natural dark colors. Most "black" Tahitian pearls are not actually black, but are instead silver, charcoal, or a multitude of colors with the dominant color being green. Truly black pearls are among the most beautiful pearls in the world, and are extremely rare.
South Sea Pearls
South Sea pearls are among the largest commercially harvested cultured pearls in the world. The average size of a South Sea pearl is 13 mm, with most harvests producing a range of sizes from 9 mm to 20 mm. The South Seas lie between the northern coast of Australia and the southern coast of China. These waters are the native habitat of a large oyster known as Pinctada maxima. South Sea pearls have a unique, satiny luster and also have a subtle array of colors; typically white, silver or platinum and golden, that are rare in other pearl types.
Fresh Water Pearls
Fresh water pearls traditional source of pearls has been saltwater mollusks, freshwater mussels, which live in ponds, lakes and rivers, can also produce pearls. These pearls come in a wide variety of shapes and natural colors, and they tend to be less expensive than saltwater pearls, making them very popular with designers.