Pearl, the birthstone for June, is among the most timeless, classic and treasured of all gems. Throughout history, these noble gems have been associated with wisdom, wealth, purity, romance and mystery.
The eclectic selection of pearl jewelry available for purchase today - from the quintessential pearl stud earrings coveted by brides across the country to a new breed of designer pearl jewelry that doesn't look anything like your grandmother's pearls - shares at least one common denominator: It is almost all made up of cultured pearls, as opposed to natural pearls.
Cultured pearls are created by farmers when a piece of foreign material (often a polished bead) is inserted into the tissue of an oyster or mollusk and nurtured under carefully controlled growing conditions.
Pearl jewelry can feature a wide variety of cultured pearls, including akoya pearls, which are cultured in the Pinctada fucata martensii, also known as the akoya oyster. Found and farmed primarily in Japan and China, the mollusk produces pearls renowned for their luster. They are generally white or cream colored, with overtone colors of rose, silver, or cream. Akoya pearl jewelry is considered the classic choice and is often used in traditional styles such as pearl strands, pearl earrings or pearl solitaire rings.
Tahitian cultured pearls, on the other hand, are typically used in more fashion-forward pearl jewelry styles because, thanks to their unique range of colors - including black, grey, green and silver - they lend themselves to experimentation. Grown in the black-lipped oyster Pinctada margaritifera, in and around Tahiti and the French Polynesian islands, Tahitian pearls can come in much larger-than-average sizes.
South Sea pearls, which are cultured in the warm waters of Australia, Indonesia and the Philippines in a giant oyster known as Pinctada maxima, are among the largest and, therefore, most expensive pearls on the market. High-end designers often use baroque-shaped South Sea pearls in extravagant pearl jewelry styles that combine diamonds, colored gemstones, and offbeat materials such as leather and wood.
The most affordable and ubiquitous pearl type, however, is the freshwater pearl. Cultivated in freshwater mussels, the pearls are largely produced in China, where they are often dyed in a rainbow of colors. Once known as ?rice krispie pearls? due to their irregular shape and uneven surfaces, freshwater pearls are now available in significantly improved qualities. In some cases, their size, color and luster even rivals the majestic South Sea variety.
In addition to the types of pearls named above, pearl jewelry can feature mabe and keshi pearls, which are hemispherical shaped pearls grown against the inside of the oyster's shell rather than within its tissue, and non-beaded pearls formed by accident as a by-product of a pearl culturing operation, respectively.
The most important thing to keep in mind when caring for pearl jewelry is the pearl's delicacy. Pearls are organic substances and therefore more susceptible to scratches and damage than other gemstones. Wrap them inside a soft cloth rather than letting them scrape up against the other jewels in your jewelry box.
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