June is for pearls – a guide to understanding the different types of pearl

The pearl is the traditional birthstone associated with the month of June. If you are looking for a gift for a 21st or 18th birthday gift, you might be finding it difficult to understand the difference between the various types of pearls available.

Luckily we have pearl expert Chrissie Douglas at hand to impart her wisdom and make it all clear…

Although a pearl is not a ‘stone’, it has long been regarded as a most precious gem, and was worn through the centuries as the ultimate symbol of wealth and beauty. The main different types of pearl are natural & cultured, which can both be saltwater & freshwater.

Natural pearls & Cultured pearls
Natural pearls are those that are formed naturally, created in nature without any human intervention. An irritant enters the tissue of a pearl-bearing mollusk (oyster or mussel) which is then coated in layers of nacre as part of the mollusk’s protection sytem. The pearl shape is dependant on the form of the irritant which starts the pearl formation process.

Cultured pearls are those whose beginning is encouraged by man. A pearl farmer inserts the irritant into the pearl, rather than waiting for it to happen by chance, and the rest of the pearl formation process is the same as for natural pearls. The farmer is able to influence the shape & size of the pearl by the irritant inserted.

The majority of pearls sold today are cultured pearls, as natural pearls are very rare. Expect to pay at least 10 times more for a natural pearl than for a cultured pearl of a similar size, shape & lustre.

Saltwater pearls & Freshwater pearls
Oyster pearls, or saltwater pearls, grow in protected lagoons in the sea or ocean, wheras freshwater pearls are produced in freshwater rivers or lakes.

The value difference between freshwater and saltwater pearls mainly comes from the fact that an oyster only makes one pearl in it’s lifetime, wheras a freshwater mussel can produce up to 60 pearls. Both oyster & freshwater pearls can be natural or cultured, though the majority of pearls found on the market are cultured.

Saltwater pearls are typically more valuable than freshwater pearls because of their luster and beauty. Saltwater pearls include Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls and South Sea pearls. Freshwater pearls are less expensive than their saltwater counterparts, and are typically not as perfectly round.

Within these different classes of pearl are many shapes, sizes and varieties of pearl, shown clearly on this pearl-type chart.

Imitation pearls are completely man-made, manufactured from acrylic , glass, plastic & fish slime. They are usually sold as costume jewellery and dont have any intrinsic value. Coleman Douglas Pearls do not sell any imitation, or faux-pearls.

More information on different types of pearl, and about choosing pearls

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