Pearls are the queen of gems...and the gem of queens." - Anonymous
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, which is why pearls fetched such extraordinary prices in the past.
One family of nacreous pearl bivalves – the pearl oyster – lives in the sea, while the other – a very different group of bivalves – lives in freshwater; these are the river mussels such as the freshwater pearl mussel.
Most people think of pearls as the pretty, round, white gems that Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Timeless. But there are so many different types of pearls that I wanted to share some of what I've learned. So, I'll be covering blister pearl/mabe, biwa, osmina, cultured, mother of pearl, and baroque. Let's just jump right in.
You might think that blister pearls and mabe pearls are two different types of pearls. I know I did until I did a little research for this blog. I learned that all mabe pearls are blister pearls to start with. They become mabe when they are "worked" by being cut from the shell in a particular shape and then glued to a mother-of-pearl back, a technique that's called a doublet. So, all mabes are blisters, but not all blisters are mabe. Not sure which one you've got? Turn yours over. If the colors are the same, or perhaps the thickness is quite thin and it looks like it's all cut from the same cloth, it's a blister pearl.
Another fun fact: Osmeña pearls are items of jewelry made by polishing the shell of a nautilus, so not actually a pearl. (This I also didn't know...I feel so much smarter now). In its natural form, it's an iridescent gray with hues of blue, pink, and purple,, but many times you'll see it dyed or bleached.
Usually assumed that all pearls come from oysters, cultured pearls are defined to be anything that is "farmed", and most often found in either freshwater river mussels or salt water oysters. Cultured pearls are the result of an irritation actually implanted into the muscle (mantle) of the mollusk. Freshwater pearls are generally not as round as saltwater pearls, and they are also more likely to be dyed or bleached (because seriously, who in their right mind is going to dye or bleach an expensive pearl?)
Mother of Pearl
Affectionately referred to as MOP (at least in my studio), mother of pearl is the iridescent coating (called nacre) that you find directly adhered to a mollusk shell. The difference between a pearl and mother of pearl is where it's located. MOP is generally a less expensive option, since it is more plentiful. Any mollusk that produces nacre will have the mother of pearl, but may not have had the irritation within to create a separate pearl.
When I'm looking at gemstones, I often find mother of pearl in the form of a cameo or carved in some way, as seen here.
There are two other types of pearls that bear mentioning:
Before I leave you, I wanted to share my newest piece, which includes mabe and baroque freshwater pearls. It will be at Kress Emporium in downtown Asheville until someone snatches it up.
Until next month,