Understanding South Sea Pearls
Farmers implant a mother of pearl bead into oysters in the hope of producing a perfectly round, high-luster, clean pearl. The larger the pearl the oyster produces, the more valuable it is in the trade. Farmers hope that their entire crop turns out with these large South Sea pearls that are perfectly round. However, as the oyster fights this mother of pearl bead implant (which it sees as a foreign body) and the oyster's environment is disrupted by unpredictable weather, the likelihood of producing a perfectly round pearl that is beautiful and blemish-free decreases. That is why a perfectly round South Sea pearl is considered to be a paragon. Compose a necklace of these perfectly round white South Sea pearls or black South Sea pearls and you have an investment-grade South Sea pearl necklace. The photograph below shows the varieties of South Sea pearls that are available from white to gold to black to multicolor strands.
There are many countries which produce the fine necklaces which consumers know as South Sea pearls necklaces. Below is a listing of the different countries that produce South Sea pearls and the range of colors (like white South Sea pearls and black South Sea pearls) that each country is known for. Geography, weather and slight variations in the species of oysters that produce South Sea cultured pearls can all contribute to a pearl's color.
There are many species of mollusks which live all over the world. The oyster (mollusk) which produces the South Sea pearl is known as Pinctada Maxima or Silver Lip Oyster. It is the largest oyster in the world capable of cultivating a pearl. The larger a pearl is, the longer it has to cultivate in an oyster, adding to its rarity. Because the Pinctada Maxima oyster lives and grows its pearls in the wild, its production is limited. This is the single most important factor which contributes to the rarity of South Sea pearls making them the "Rolls Royce" of cultured pearls. Before a South Sea pearl oyster begins cultivating a pearl, a mother of pearl bead implant is inserted into the oyster to begin the pearl forming process. This can be seen in the photograph below and to the right.
The chart below illustrates the range of South Sea pearl shapes. Again, rounder pearls are most valuable. Circle pearls or ringed pearls are the least valuable pearls second only to baroque pearls. Baroque pearls can be as lustrous and beautiful as round pearls. As you move from left to right in this South Sea shape chart, the pearls become less valuable within the wholesale trade, and the South Sea pearls' prices change to reflect that
Round. A perfectly round South Sea pearl when measured with a caliper has a variation in its circumference that is less than 2 percent. For example, if what appears to be a perfectly round South Sea pearl is 12 millimeters measured in its shortest diameter and 12.1 millimeters in its longest diameter, the circumference variation is 1 percent (12 divided by 12.1 = .99). Or you can refer to this pearl as 99 percent round. Rounder pearls are most valuable.
Semi Round. A pearl that appears to be perfectly round whose circumference variation is 2 percent or more. If a pearl has a diameter of 12 millimeters in its shortest length and 12.3 millimeters in its longest length, the variation in its circumference is 2.5 percent (12 divided by 12.3 is .975). Or you can refer to this pearl as 97.5 percent round. The fact that it has a variation in circumference that is over 2.5 percent means that it is semi round. Semi round South Sea pearls are the most valuable shaped pearls second only to round pearls. It is very common to see a South Sea pearl necklace that is composed of round and semi round pearls. The reason for this is that it is very difficult to make a necklace where all of the pearls are perfectly matched in body color, shape, overtone, quality and luster. Semi round South Sea pearls can be 20 percent less than round pearls.
Button. A pearl that has a variation in circumference that is approximately 20 percent For example, a pearl that measures 12mm by 12.5mm. These button pearls are often used in jewelry pieces and earrings because they are not round or semi round. It is common to have a pearl and diamond earring set with button pearls. Buttons that appear to be round are called "Tall Buttons." A talented jeweler can set buttons into jewelry and make the pearls appear round, especially when working with tall buttons. Some people insist on making earrings or other jewelry with only perfectly round pearls, but because these round pearls are rare and reserved for necklaces, they are expensive. Buttons can be half the price of round pearls. We often make South Sea button necklaces where we drill a full necklace of South Sea button pearls through their shortest diameter so they sit like disks on a strand. These necklaces are not as valuable as round or semi round necklaces but have an expensive look to them at a fraction of the price of round necklaces. A bargain shopper might purchase a button strand where all the pearls are "tall buttons" because when viewed from a distance, they appear to be round.
The next criteria needed to understand South Sea pearls are size. South Sea pearls are most notable for their large sizes. This is because the oysters (Pinctada Maxima for Australia, Indonesian and Myanmar pearls and Silver Lip for Tahiti) are the largest species of mollusk capable of producing a pearl. Whereas the Akoya oyster (which produces the Japanese Akoya pearl) tops out at 10mm, the white South Sea pearls from Australia, the black South Sea pearls from Tahiti (the primary island of French Polynesia) and the golden pearls from Indonesia and Myanmar have a minimum size of 10mm and a maximum of 20mm! Please see the chart below to view the size range of white South Sea pearls from Australia and black South Sea pearls from Tahiti. Although it is possible to get pearls smaller than 10mm and larger than 16mm in the South Sea, they are scarce. However, in recent years the market has seen an increase in South Sea pearls under 10mm. These 8 millimeter and 9 millimeter pearls are mostly used in what's called "baby South Sea necklaces."
Most of the necklaces that are composed using cultured South Sea pearls have a size variation of 2 to 3 millimeters within each necklace. This is because there are not enough South Sea pearls produced each year to make uniform necklaces exclusively that match in luster, body color, shape and overtone. A pearl company, such as Pearls By Web, must have a selection of a minimum of 10,000 pearls (lot) to compose a necklace that is properly matched. This necklace will be graduated in size. For example, one might compose a necklace of 33 pearls which is 16 inches long and graduates from 10 millimeters up to 13 millimeters as the center pearl. The fewer the pearls in a beginning lot, the less likelihood there is of composing a necklace where are the pearls have a similar luster, body color, shape and overtone. How well a South Sea necklace is composed is known as make. Therefore, in a South Sea necklace which has a good make, all the pearls look alike.
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