At some point you may be in the market for pearls. It’s a complicated topic, but it’s nice to know at least a little bit about what you’re purchasing. Think of this blog as a quick course to help you understand the lingo when you are shopping for pearls. Reading this will also help you understand the wide variation in pricing for pearls.
Lesson 1: All the pearls you see in the store are cultured pearls, which means that they were made with man’s help. Since Mikimoto started growing pearls in the early 1900s, the industry has grown tremendously. Oysters or mussels are tended to by pearl farmers and, when they’re old enough, they get implanted with a piece(s) of tissue(usually from a mussel) or maybe a bead. If all goes well, the mollusk responds to this “irritant” by secreting nacre around it. With time and a lot “babying” on the part of the farmers, these mollusks will produce a pearl. Some mollusks can produce several pearls at one time.
Lesson 2: Different types of mollusks produce different types of pearls. The four main types of pearls you’ll see for sale are Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, and Freshwater. Of the four, Freshwater pearls are the most economical, partly because many pearls can be harvested from each mussel. Freshwater pearls come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Akoya pearls are usually white or cream-colored. They’re known for great luster, and they are quite round. Tahitian pearls are gray to black in color, and they’re usually bigger than Akoyas. South Sea pearls can be bigger still, and they are silver or gold in color.
Lesson 3: The shape of a pearl can vary due to many factors, some of them under man’s control. Shape can be described using many different terms. Sure, you’ll hear round, near-round, tear-drop, and button. Those are fairly self-explanatory. But what about BAROQUE? This just means that the pearl isn’t a traditional shape. It’s irregular. Many freshwater pearls fall into this category, because they are normally nucleated with just a small piece of tissue. EDISON pearls refer to freshwater pearls that have been nucleated with round beads rather than tissue. They can be quite big and round because of this. FIREBALL pearls are also bead-nucleated, but they have a “tail” because of the way the bead is placed into the mollusk. MABE, or BLISTER pearls are formed when a half-bead is attached to the inner side of the oyster. When the pearl is removed, a portion of the oyster’s lining is also taken. KESHI pearls are formed when the inserted nucleus is rejected by the oyster, but the nacre has started to gather. The result is a pearl that looks more like a single Kellogg’s cornflake. It is completely made of nacre. MOTHER OF PEARL is not really a pearl, but it’s made of the same stuff. It forms the lining of the mollusk, and can be cut out in thin layers to be used as inlay.
Lesson 4: Just like diamonds have 4 Cs (Cut, color, clarity, and carat weight) that determine their value, pearls have qualities that you should know about. LUSTER is a combo of surface shine and a deeper glow. Really good luster allows you to see your own reflection on the pearl’s surface. If the surface seems cloudy or milky, with more of a matte finish, luster is low. SHAPE, as we talked about in lesson 3, helps determine value. It’s rare to have a perfectly round pearl, but that’s usually the goal. SURFACE is important, too. Blemishes on the surface of the pearl detract from its value. SIZE influences value. Usually bigger is more valuable, because it takes the oyster longer to produce that size. You do have to keep the type of pearl in mind, however. A large Akoya would be a small Tahitian. COLOR is dependent on the type of pearl, too. But it’s important that the pearl have both a pleasing color and fairly uniform color. Finally, if you’re buying a strand of pearls, you need to think about how well they MATCH. Well-matched pearls in a necklace command top prices because it takes so many pearls to find ones that are similar enough to be strung together.
Lesson 5: (optional) If you do plan to buy a strand of pearls, there are some terms you should know. Most strands are made of pearls that are UNIFORM in size and shape. But you can also buy a GRADUATED strand. (No, that doesn’t mean it’s smarter.) It means that the pearls graduate in size, from small near the clasp to large in the center. You can buy strands of different lengths. A PRINCESS length is 18 inches. A MATINEE is 20 – 24 inches. And an OPERA length is 30 – 36 inches long! Or you can buy multiple strands that are worn together as a single necklace. If the strands nest inside each other, you have a BIB. If the strands are twisted together like a braid, you have a TORSADE.
As I said before, buying pearls can seem quite complicated. But they are worth it! And, hopefully, Pearls 101 can help you feel confident.
Most of my life I’ve wished I was born a few days earlier, mainly because my birthstone would be an emerald instead of pearl or alexandrite. When it came time to buy my high school class ring, I chose the emerald green stone rather than the pale purple one. When my husband and I designed our 30-year anniversary ring, we designed it with an emerald for the center stone, even though pearl is the traditional gift for the 30-year anniversary. As you can see, I’ve always just gone with what I wanted rather than what I was ‘supposed’ to want. But my decisions got me to thinking about the origin of birthstones. Who deemed that each month be represented by a different gemstone? When was this decision made? And why?
My research on these questions has revealed an interesting and somewhat nonsensical journey. Most sources say that the idea of birthstones started with the Bible and Aaron’s breastplate. Aaron had 12 stones in his breastplate, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. No one knows for sure what the 12 stones were, but chances are high that they were pretty rocks, like jasper or lapis. These are rocks that were native to the area.
A first century historian named Josephus supposedly made the numeric connection between the 12 stones and the 12 months of the year. For centuries the idea was to have 12 stones, carrying a different one each month. They weren’t really birthstones because they weren’t associated with the owner’s birth. They were associated with months of the year. The individual stones were supposed to bring good luck and good health during each one’s specific month.
But somewhere along the way, the idea changed. Experts say that between the 15th and 18th centuries, people began to see themselves as having one stone, corresponding to the month of their birth, that would bring them good fortune. These stones, with a few exceptions, are very different from the birthstones of today. Have you ever heard of bloodstone? It’s an opaque green stone with red spots. It was the birthstone for March. How about sardonyx? That’s a banded, rusty brown-colored, translucent chalcedony that was the birthstone for August.
Bloodstone: March birthstone
Sardonyx: August birthstone
In 1912, Jewelers of America, an association with a definite interest in marketing gemstones, sought to standardize the list. The official list of birthstones had garnet, amethyst, aquamarine, diamond, emerald, pearl, ruby, peridot, sapphire, opal, topaz (the orange-yellow-brown kind), and turquoise. Some of the months had two birthstones, partly in deference to the traditional stones. So March had aquamarine AND bloodstone. August had peridot AND sardonyx. But, let’s face it, if you were born in March, which gem would you rather have? A transparent medium blue one or an opaque dark green one with red blemishes? It didn’t take long to drop these traditional choices.
The 1912 list has had few changes in the last 100+ years. In 1952, alexandrite was added as a birthstone for June and citrine was added as a birthstone for November. December’s traditional birthstone of lapis lazuli was replaced with blue zircon. In 2002, tanzanite, the blue-purple gemstone that had been discovered in 1967, was added to the list for December. And, most recently, in 2016, spinel was added as a birthstone for August.
Why the additions? Many people would say it’s a marketing move. Birthstones aren’t really seen as bringing good luck or good health anymore. They don’t have the significance they used to have. They’re just fun. So why not have more choices? I’m really happy for all you August babies who no longer feel confined to the yellowish-green of peridot. Spinel offers great variety! (See my blog on spinel–July 28, 2016).
So, what do we make of this idea of birthstones? To me it sounds like a complicated game of Telephone. Do you remember that game when someone whispers a phrase to someone else, and it goes around the circle? The final uttering of the phrase bears no resemblance to the original. That’s how I feel birthstones came to be. From Aaron’s breastplate to the writings of Josephus to the Jewelers’ list, it’s a crazy, convoluted path. But this is where we are and what we have. My suggestion? Adopt your favorite gemstone, the one that has meaning to you, and make it YOUR birthstone.
Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession, and how Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden was published in 2015. A friend bought me the book, and it may well be one the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. Gemology and history are two of my favorite subjects, and this book intertwines them into eight fascinating stories. Each chapter is a stand-alone story, of places, events, and peoples as varied as the Spanish Armada and World War I or Marie Antoinette and Kokichi Mikimoto.
Aja Raden writes with a sense of humor and an irreverence for how humans can behave when they desire something. Her stories are intriguing and revealing, and I love how she ties gems and jewelry into topics like economics and politics. As the author states, jewelry isn’t just a set of objects, but symbols–“tangible stand-ins for intangible things.”
In a nutshell, the chapters discuss the following:
How glass beads bought Manhattan
History and rise in popularity of the diamond engagement ring
Emeralds and their significance to the Spanish Empire
The necklace that “started” the French Revolution
The pearl, Le Peregrina, that stirred the rivalry between two queens
How Faberge’ eggs hurt Tsarist Russia and fueled Communism
How Mikimoto’s cultured pearls saved the Japanese economy
How wristwatches served in World War I
I enjoyed each chapter and feel that anyone who reads a jewelry blog would like this book. If you read it, please share your thoughts through our website.
The Earth is very hot–over 10000 degrees Fahrenheit at its core. Over the millions of years that gemstones formed in the earth, some have been subjected to high temperatures. Interestingly enough, this heat can alter the light absorption of the stone, changing its color. Sometimes heat “improves” the color of the stone, perhaps taking a gray, brown, or almost colorless stone and turning it to a cheerful blue or a regal purple.
Man has found a way to heat stones that Earth neglected to heat. The most common types of heat treated gemstones are ruby, sapphire, topaz, tanzanite, and zircon. If you buy one of these stones, you can be quite certain that it’s been heated by man. You’d pay a huge premium to have beautiful color without man-made heat. The time spent heating, the temperature, and the other treatments that may be combined with heat will all vary depending on the raw material.
Non-heat treated tanzanite on the left and heat-treated tanzanite on the right
Our planet also naturally irradiates stones. Irradiation can change the arrangement of the protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the atoms of the stone. This can alter the color of stones as well. Man has figured out how to irradiate gemstones in order to improve color. They can be treated to high energy radiation at a gamma ray facility that uses cobalt-60 so that there is no residual radioactivity. Diamonds are sometimes irradiated to create beautiful fancy colored diamonds. Colored diamonds can occur naturally, but it’s rare for them to be blue or green. That’s why famous gems like the Hope Diamond or the Dresden Green are so amazing. If you see a blue or green diamond, chances are man has irradiated it. Blue topaz is another irradiated gem stone. It’s the combination of irradiation and heat treatment that brings out that beautiful Swiss or London Blue in topaz.
The sun gave us inspiration for bleaching. Stones often look prettier if they are whiter or less brownish. Pearls and jadeite are both commonly bleached–and not by the sun. The process involves hydrogen peroxide or some type of acid. Pearls, even if they are natural in color rather than dyed, are still often bleached to lighten and brighten the color nature gave them.
Unbleached jadeite on the left and bleached jadeite on the right
Most people in the jewelry industry accept these three treatments. Since heating, irradiating, and bleaching could have all occurred naturally, it seems that man is helping out by making a natural process accessible to more gemstones. And since all of these treatments are permanent, no one has to worry about their gemstone changing over time. Finally, without these treatments, colored gemstones and pearls would be much more expensive and exclusive.
Our final post of this series will be about treatments that are not as commonly accepted. These are treatments you, as the consumer, should definitely be aware of before you buy. Treatments such as surface coating and fracture filling can enhance the look of the stone but may not be permanent. Remember to ask questions if you want to know about treatments on a gemstone you’re planning to purchase.
Gems like pearl, coral, ivory, shell, or amber have very different beginnings than inorganic gemstones like ruby or diamond. Organic gems were formed from biological processes and, though they are strong enough to be set in jewelry, they require special care and cleaning.
When cleaning your jewelry, never use harsh soap or chemical jewelry cleaner on organic gems. Don’t use an ultrasonic cleaner or steam cleaner. You can dampen a soft cloth, like flannel or microfiber, with water or mild soapy water, and run the cloth over the gems. Then you should dry quickly with another clean, soft cloth. Never soak an organic gem because of its porosity.
Organic gems shouldn’t be subjected for long to strong light or heat. Drastic changes in temperature or humidity are bad for them as well. Sunlight can bleach gems like ivory, destroying the yellow patina which shows age and makes the ivory more valuable. Heat and high humidity can cause crazing or discoloration.
At the same time, too little humidity is bad for organic gems. If your gems are very dried out, you can hydrate them with a little mineral oil. Some people recommend doing this once a year. Put it on and take it off with a soft cloth. Do not soak it in mineral oil, but, if the piece is very dehydrated, you can wrap it in a cloth dampened with mineral oil, and let it sit overnight. Just make sure to wipe off any excess oil in the morning.
Human oils are moisturizing for organic gems. But when you remove your jewelry, it’s best to wipe it down with a clean cloth. Put jewelry on after you’ve put on your make-up, hairspray, and perfume. And don’t wear these gems if it’s a really hot day–sweat has a chemical component to it that can stain some organic gems. If you’re going to be cooking, cleaning or doing any activity involving vinegar, bleach, or detergents, take your jewelry off.
Finally, when storing your jewelry, it’s best to keep organic gems in a protected soft pouch or tissue paper to protect them from being scratched. Do not, however, store them in a plastic pouch. The plastic can emit a chemical that can cause a pearl’s surface to deteriorate. Storing jewelry in a safety deposit box or safe can dry out organic gemstones. Place a small container of water in the lock box, and be sure to open the box regularly to allow air circulation.
After all this, it may sound like organic gems aren’t worth the work! But once you get in the habit of caring for your organic gems, it won’t seem like work. They are definitely worth the extra care!
If you are lucky enough to be born in June, you have three birthstones to choose from–Alexandrite, Pearl, or Moonstone. No month has more options. Yet as a young girl born in early June, I was actually disappointed in my birthdate. Yes, the weather was nice and, yes, summer vacation was right around the corner, but how could I be happy with that pale purple birthstone called Alexandrite? No one explained the other options to me. No one told me about the special gift of true Alexandrite. I remember wishing I’d been born just a few days earlier, so that I could have May’s Emerald birthstone. That vivid green was so much more ME!
There is a big difference between real Alexandrite and the simulated Alexandrite featured in every inexpensive birthstone ring of my youth. Named after Alexander II, Czar of Russia, Alexandrite was discovered on his birthday in the early 1830s. It is very rare, especially in large sizes. What’s amazing about this gem stone is its ability to change color. When viewed in natural daylight, Alexandrite is a shade of green or blue-green. But at night, in incandescent light, the same stone is violet, red, or purple. Quite romantic, huh? I wish I’d known that when I was young.
If Alexandrite isn’t what you’re looking for, think about pearls. Pearls are organic and come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. They are less rare and expensive than Alexandrite. Because of the many varieties, treatments, and the complicated grading process, you can spend a lifetime learning about pearls. Exotic and classic at the same time, pearls are a perennial favorite.
Finally, if you want special meaning attached to your gemstone, Moonstone might be the birthstone for you. It’s considered good luck, especially for lovers, because it’s said to arouse love and passion. Moonstone is known for calming nerves, strengthening resolve, and guarding against recklessness. And, to top it off, the stone is beautiful withits gentle sheen. It comes in soft tones of white, blue, peach, gray or green.
So, feel blessed if you’re born in June. In addition to nice weather and summer vacation, you have GREAT birthstones to choose from! Lucky you!!
Like most things you own, jewelry needs a little maintenance. You wouldn’t drive your car without oil changes. You wouldn’t wear your clothes without washing them. Your jewelry needs a little care, too. But jewelry maintenance doesn’t have to take up much time or money. These FIVE TIPS will help you keep your jewelry healthy at no cost to you.
KEEP JEWELRY SEPARATED
Keep your pieces of jewelry from potentially scratching each other while they are being stored. This seems like such a simple thing, but diamonds, especially, are really hard and can scratch softer gemstones and metals. It’s so easy to throw all your jewelry into a bag when you’re traveling, but that’s when a lot of gemstone abrasion happens. Keep jewelry in individual little bags or in a jewelry box with separate compartments. Necklaces should be hung up when not around your neck. Otherwise they can get kinked or tangled.
PROFESSIONALLY CLEAN JEWELRY
Get your finer pieces jewelry professionally cleaned at a store, like Dearborn Jewelers, that offers free cleaning. You will be amazed at how your engagement and wedding rings sparkle after they go through the ultra sonic cleaner! Nothing works better on diamond jewelry. But not all jewelry is cleaned the same way. We’ve had people bring in the disasterous results of self-cleaning their jewelry in ways that weren’t appropriate for the piece. Many times we’re able to rectify the situation, but we can’t erase the unnecessary panic you went through when you saw your favorite bracelet or ring blackened and dull. Cleaning at our store usually takes less than 10 minutes, and you’ll feel more confident when it’s being done by professionals.
HAVE CLASPS AND PRONGS CHECKED
While you’re in the store getting your rings cleaned, have the jewelry professional check the prongs under a microscope. Small metal prongs keep gemstones from falling out of their settings. Because metal does wear over time, especially on rings that naturally get banged or scratched more than pendants or earrings, these prongs become thinner, weaker, and less able to do their job. While re-tipping original prongs or replacing old prongs is not a free service, it is free to have your prongs checked so that you know their current capability. We suggest doing so once a year. Many people choose a specific time of year, like their anniversary or birthday, to remind them to take advantage of this service.
Some gemstones require a little extra care. We recently hosted the Pearl Goddess, Betty Sue King, and she suggests placing your strand of pearls in a soft, slightly dampened cloth, then blotting the pearls to remove oils. Too much water will weaken the material on which the pearls are strung, but leaving your body oils on the pearls can eat away at their nacre. Do not pull on the strand as you clean the pearls. Teri, at Dearborn Jewelers, always says that her pearls are “the last thing she puts on in the morning and the first thing she takes off in the evening.” NEVER spray hairspray while wearing pearls!
SPECIAL CARE FOR OPALS
Opals naturally have a water content of around 3 – 10%, and, if they get too dried out, they can crack or craze. It gets so dry here in Michigan during the winter. I like to keep my opal in a little airtight bag with a dampened cotton ball or piece of cloth. I’ve heard terrible stories of opals that cracked while being stored in safety deposit boxes, which are kept extremely dry. Opals are stunning, and they are worth the extra care. Just remember that they like a little, but not too much water! It is not good to bathe an opal doublet or triplet in water. The glue between will layers will be weakened.
Maintaining your pieces with these free and simple tips can help your jewelry have a long and healthy life.