I remember I was watching a show on National Geographic, it was all about the process and creation of a pearl. I was so transfixed by the show because I didn’t realise how truly precious a pearl is, so if you happen to have one, consider yourself lucky.

What makes pearls so incredibly unique is that pearls are the only gemstones that exist that come from a living creature, such as an oyster or clam.

So how does a pearl form?

A pearl forms when a foreign substance, an irritant, like a grain of sand, slips into the mollusc. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a mollusc is described as, “… any of a large phylum (Mollusca) of invertebrate animals (such as snails, clams, or squids) with a soft unsegmented body usually enclosed in a calcareous shell.”

The creature, let’s say a clam, then protects itself with layers of nacre. According to Tricia Christensen, “Nacre is crystalline aragonite or calcium carbonate. Shellfish and mollusks excrete it when they are exposed to a parasite or a foreign body introduced into a shell. It is noted for its shine and iridescence, and its coating on shells is called the mother of pearl.”

This foreign food particle, like the grain of sand, acts as the nucleus of the pearl and gets larger with time as layers of nacre are added.

Although white pearls are most common for a pearl, pearls come in different shades, such as black and coloured.
Types of pearls

1. Natural pearls

Natural pearls are extremely rare to find as they are harvested from the wild. Only one out of 10 000 molluscs produce a pearl in the wild. When they are discovered they are valued at sometimes astronomical amounts.

2. Cultured pearls

While watching the documentary on pearls I learnt of a process called pearl cultivation. This is where pearl farmers, yes farmers, physically insert the irritant into an oyster or clam. In 1893, Kokichi Mokimoto was first the first person to cultivate a pearl.

Cultured pearls are the most common and are still 100% original despite human assistance.
There are two types of cultured pearls, namely freshwater and saltwater.

The price of a pearl

If you truly want to prove yourself to that special lady, buy her a pearl necklace, you won’t regret it; that is if you can afford it, pearls are incredibly expensive.

The price of a pearl involves many factors, like the size, shape, quality of nacre, colour, surface and lustre, which is the shine of the pearl. According to The Pearl Source, “… on average, a pearl’s value ranges from $300 to $1500.” That’s about just over R4000 to more than R20000.

Where the pearl comes from is also included in the pricing of a pearl. South Sea pearls, pearls in the seas of Australia and the Philippines, are considered to be the most valuable. Their pricing goes from $1000 to $100000 (R20000 to over R1.3 million).

How long does a pearl take to form?

Freshwater pearls require less time to form in comparison to the saltwater types. According to The Pearl Source,

“small saltwater pearls can take as little as six months to develop, while the larger ones might need up to four years.”

With the rise in sea pollution, sea predators, oyster divers and many more, it is no wonder that pearls are so incredibly difficult to find. It takes more than 100000 molluscs to make just one pearl necklace.

A lady’s best friend

Typically, women are known to wear pearls and are marketed for weddings, are a sign of love and of fertility.
Today pearls are worn by many high society women and even queens; Queen Elizabeth is one of those queens.

Because pearls are so precious, women are often compared to them. One such quote comes from Shakespeare, “Why she is a pearl, whose price hath launched a thousand ships, and turned crowned kings to merchants.”

Pearls are an investment, and rightfully so considering their worth, they are often used as heirlooms, passed on from generation to generation.

So if you think diamonds are the jewels of the earth, then surely pearls are the queens of the sea, and as Grace Kelly says, “The pearl is a queen of gems and the gem of Queens”.


Read more here on why sharks are important for the environment.

Tell us: What did you find most surprising about pearls?