A pearl is a hard, glistening object produced within the soft tissue (specifically the mantle) of a living shelled mollusk or another animal, such as fossil conulariids. Just like the shell of a mollusk, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate (mainly aragonite or a mixture of aragonite and calcite) in minute crystalline form, which has deposited in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes, known as baroque pearls, can occur. The finest quality of natural pearls have been highly valued as gemstones and objects of beauty for many centuries. Because of this, pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable.
The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously in the wild, but are extremely rare. These wild pearls are referred to as natural pearls. Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold. Imitation pearls are also widely sold in inexpensive jewelry. Pearls have been harvested and cultivated primarily for use in jewelry, but in the past were also used to adorn clothing. They have also been crushed and used in cosmetics, medicines and paint formulations.
Whether wild or cultured, gem-quality pearls are almost always nacreous and iridescent, like the interior of the shell that produces them. However, almost all species of shelled mollusks are capable of producing pearls (technically "calcareous concretions") of lesser shine or less spherical shape. Although these may also be legitimately referred to as "pearls" by gemological labs and also under U.S. Federal Trade Commission rules, and are formed in the same way, most of them have no value except as curiosities.
All shelled mollusks can, by natural processes, produce some kind of "pearl" when an irritating microscopic object becomes trapped within its mantle folds, but the great majority of these "pearls" are not valued as gemstones. Nacreous pearls, the best-known and most commercially significant, are primarily produced by two groups of molluskan 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.
Natural (or wild) pearls, formed without human intervention, are very rare. Many hundreds of pearl oysters or mussels must be gathered and opened, and thus killed, to find even one wild pearl; for many centuries, this was the only way pearls were obtained, and why pearls fetched such extraordinary prices in the past. Cultured pearls are formed in pearl farms, using human intervention as well as natural processes.
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. The most valuable pearls have a metallic, highly reflective luster.
Because pearls are made primarily of calcium carbonate, they can be dissolved in vinegar. Calcium carbonate is susceptible to even a weak acid solution because the crystals react with the acetic acid in the vinegar to form calcium acetate and carbon dioxide.
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 (where they are protected under law). Most freshwater cultured pearls sold today come from China.
The mollusk's mantle (protective membrane) deposits layers of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in the form of the mineral aragonite or a mixture of aragonite and calcite (polymorphs with the same chemical formula, but different crystal structures) held together by an organic horn-like compound called conchiolin. The combination of aragonite and conchiolin is called nacre, which makes up mother-of-pearl. The commonly held belief that a grain of sand acts as the irritant is in fact rarely the case. Typical stimuli include organic material, parasites, or even damage that displaces mantle tissue to another part of the mollusk's body. These small particles or organisms gain entry when the shell valves are open for feeding or respiration. In cultured pearls, the irritant is typically an introduced piece of the mantle epithelium, with or without a spherical bead (beaded or beadless cultured pearls).
Natural pearls are nearly 100% calcium carbonate and conchiolin. It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk and settles inside the shell. The mollusk, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare.
Cultured pearls are the response of the shell to a tissue implant. A tiny piece of mantle tissue (called a graft) from a donor shell is transplanted into a recipient shell, causing a pearl sac to form into which the tissue precipitates calcium carbonate. There are a number of methods for producing cultured pearls: using freshwater or seawater shells, transplanting the graft into the mantle or into the gonad, and adding a spherical bead as a nucleus. Most saltwater cultured pearls are grown with beads. Trade names of cultured pearls are Akoya (阿古屋), white or golden South sea, and black Tahitian. Most beadless cultured pearls are mantle-grown in freshwater shells in China, and are known as freshwater cultured pearls.
Cultured pearls can be distinguished from natural pearls by X-ray examination. Nucleated cultured pearls are often 'preformed' as they tend to follow the shape of the implanted shell bead nucleus. After a bead is inserted into the oyster, it secretes a few layers of nacre around the bead; the resulting cultured pearl can then be harvested in as few as twelve to eighteen months.
Some imitation pearls (also called shell pearls) are simply made of mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell, while others are made from glass and are coated with a solution containing fish scales called essence d'Orient.
A well-equipped gem testing laboratory can distinguish natural pearls from cultured pearls by using gemological X-ray equipment to examine the center of a pearl. With X-rays it is possible to see the growth rings of the pearl, where the layers of calcium carbonate are separated by thin layers of conchiolin. The differentiation of natural pearls from non-beaded cultured pearls can be very difficult without the use of this X-ray technique.
Natural and cultured pearls can be distinguished from imitation pearls using a microscope. Another method of testing for imitations is to rub two pearls against each other. Imitation pearls are completely smooth, but natural and cultured pearls are composed of nacre platelets, making both feel slightly gritty.
Single natural pearls are often sold as collectors' items, 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 in exchange for a matched double strand of natural pearls Cartier had been collecting for years; at the time, it was valued at US$1 million.)
The introduction and advance of the cultured pearl hit the pearl industry hard. Pearl dealers publicly disputed the authenticity of these new cultured products, and left many co