Pearls – The Birthstone of June – Part 2

Definition

Picture of a black pearl and a shell of the black-lipped pearl oyster. The iridescent colors originate from nacre layers.

All shelled mollusks can, by natural processes, produce some kind of “pearl” when an irritating microscopic object becomes trapped within its mantle folds, but the great majority of these “pearls” are not valued as gemstones. Nacreous pearls, the best-known and most commercially significant, are primarily produced by two groups of molluskan bivalves or clams. A nacreous pearl is made from layers of nacre, by the same living process as is used in the secretion of the mother of pearl which lines the shell.

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, and why pearls fetched such extraordinary prices in the past. Cultured pearls are formed in pearl farms, using human intervention as well as natural processes.

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. Saltwater pearls can grow in several species of marine pearl oysters in the family Pteriidae. Freshwater pearls grow within certain (but by no means all) species of freshwater mussels in the order Unionida, the families Unionidae and Margaritiferidae.

Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

Freshwater and saltwater pearls may sometimes look quite similar, but they come from different sources.

Freshwater pearls form in various species of freshwater mussels, family Unionidae, which live in lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of fresh water. These freshwater pearl mussels occur not only in hotter climates, but also in colder more temperate areas such as Scotland (where they are protected under law). Most freshwater cultured pearls sold today come from China.

Saltwater pearls grow within pearl oysters, family Pteriidae, which live in oceans. Saltwater pearl oysters are usually cultivated in protected lagoons or volcanic atolls.

More about the June Birthstone, Pearl, in Part 3 of this series.

(Information from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)