The most common pearl question we are asked .......
Are Orchira Pearls freshwater pearls?
So instead of only answering that simple question by Yes, lets go more into the question of; what is a freshwater pearl?
Traditionally when everyone thinks of a pearl, there is this magical image of a diver in beautiful blue sea finding a large clam or oyster, opening it to find a stunning round pearl. It is also true that pearls have been farmed in saltwater for many, many years.
So must salt water be present to grow pearls and the answer to that is no; so now we can talk about the origins of freshwater pearls.
Naturally occurring mollusks which live in freshwater lakes and rivers can also produce pearls. There are examples of these all over the world and used in jewellery today. I know of pearls being found in the rivers in my home country Scotland and on the other side of the world, China has harvested freshwater pearls for many a millennia. The first record mentioning pearls in China was from 2206 BC.
The United States was also a major source of freshwater pearls from the discovery of the New World through the 19th century, however over-harvesting and increasing pollution significantly reduced the number of available pearl-forming mussels.
In the past it was said that freshwater pearls were often somewhat less lustrous than their salt water counterparts. However, they appeared in a greater variety of shapes and colours, plus had the tendency to be less expensive than saltwater pearls, making them quite popular. Freshwater pearls are also quite durable, resisting chipping, wear, and degeneration.
Freshwater pearls differ from other cultured pearls in that they are not bead-nucleated. What does that mean? Freshwater mollusks are nucleated by creating a small incision in the fleshy mantle tissue and inserting a piece of mantle tissue from another oyster. This process may be completed 25 times on either side of the mantle, producing up to 50 pearls at a time.
The mollusks are then returned to their freshwater environment where they are tended for 2-6 years. The resulting pearls are of solid nacre, but without a bead nucleus to guide the growth process, the pearls were rarely round.
In recent years the Chinese have been able to take the art of culturing freshwater pearls to new levels. In the last decade the quality of pearls produced has become so high, that many pearls in the top percentage of a harvest are nearly indistinguishable from their saltwater relatives. Gone are the rice-shape seed pearls as they are now being replaced with round, lustrous pearls of sizes as large as 16mm, mimicking large South Sea saltwater pearls. This has created a renewed interest in freshwater pearls as an affordable alternative to the higher priced saltwater.
To produce high quality freshwater pearls, the natural water, be it a river or lake must been extremely clean, free from pesticides or fertilisers, allowing the growing pearl to absord the naturally occurring minerals and produce pearls of amazing colours and shapes.
Next time I will discuss the actual process of cultivating freshwater pearls.