Choosing your Freshwater Pearls
Freshwater cultured pearls are relatively new to the fine jewelry market, despite being successfully cultured for the first time more than 700 years ago. Their low cost and increasingly higher quality make them a natural choice for many customers™ first or twenty-first set of pearls. Freshwater cultured pearls are also popular as they are closest in growth to natural pearls.
Early Chinese records show that freshwater pearls were first cultured around 1300AD. Prior to this, natural pearls were formed within freshwater mussels and found during harvest. In these early days, mussels were mainly harvested for sustenance, as well as for their colorful shells. Finding a lustrous pearl that had been maturing inside a mussel, maybe for years, was a rare occurrence.
About 70 years ago, the Japanese first succeeded in culturing small, lustrous freshwater pearls in a variety of shapes. These were produced in Japan's Lake Biwa. As a result, irregularly shaped, lustrous freshwater pearls are often casually referred to as "Biwas". However, the name officially refers only to those that have been produced in Lake Biwa.
About 30 years ago, the Chinese produced rice shaped, white freshwater pearls in unprecedented quantities. The Chinese pearl industry has matured since then. Now emphasizing quality rather than quantity, they are producing a rounder, larger and more lustrous pearls.
Today, beautiful freshwater pearls are available in a multitude of shapes, colors, and sizes. The pearls themselves have become a mainstay in the fine jewelry market. One of the largest natural pearls in existence today is the Hope Pearl, (first cultured by) Henry Phillip Hope.
Qualities of the Freshwater Pearl
The color of a pearl is determined by environmental factors, as well as by the particular qualities of the mussel that create it. Previously, the myriad of color possibilities for cultured freshwater pearls were not fully recognized. However, the colors selections available today are truly stunning.
The most prevalent natural color is white, as well as pastel colors in both pinks and lavenders.Â Traditional white pearls are by far the most popular. Their color can vary slightly depending on surrounding lighting sources and ambient colors. For example, flourescent lights, overcast skies, and shade tend to intensify blues. Incandescent light from regular light bulbs and sunlight at sunrise or sunset will intensify reds and yellows. For a pearlâ€™s â€œtrue colorâ€, observe it under natural sunlight at around midday.
It is sometimes difficult to qualify the term â€œtrue colorâ€. Many pearls have had their colors altered or enhanced after harvest to produce anything from whites tinted with pink and gold, to gorgeous blacks tinted with peacock green and deep sapphire blue. The black, metallic sheen of a freshwater pearl is generally achieved by means of a permanent irradiation treatment. Treated black pearls have been available in fine jewelry establishments since the 1920s at a fraction of the price of black Tahitians.
The shape of a pearl is an important measure of its quality. Roundness is especially emphasized in the valuation of freshwater pearls due to its rare occurrence. Because cultured freshwater pearls are tissue nucleated, only about two percent of the pearls from any given harvest are actually spherical at maturation.
Luster and Surface Quality
Luster and surface quality both also have a heavy impact on the value of a freshwater, or any, pearl. The luster of a pearl is defined by how well light is reflected from its surface. The more light reflected and the clearer the image in the reflection, the better the pearl's luster. The surface quality refers to the frequency of blemish; the fewer the better, although a small number of light blemishes are perfectly acceptable since the pearl is a natural gem.
The size of a pearl is another fundamental aspect of its value. A large pearl will be more valuable than a small pearl with other value factors constant. Pearls also have a size range at which value increases exponentially. Averaging 6mm to 7mm, freshwater pearls less than 6mm are readily available. Therefore, value increases dramatically with every millimeter over 7mm that a pearl measures.
Every pearl in a jewelry piece should be well matched in color, size, and quality. For freshwater pearls with their natural variations, color matching is of utmost import. Pearls should either be matched for color or, alternatively, in slightly varying but complementary tones. Pearls that are separated among several pieces in a jewelry set should also be matched for color and tonality. For this reason, acquiring your jewelry set at one time is always the best option if you are after quality.