Before cultured pearls were available, pearls were retrieved from the ocean by divers. Not only was this a dangerous pastime, but also resulted in very few pearls with only one out of every ten thousand wild oysters producing a pearl of value. Although most precious stones and gems are forged from metals from the earth’s crust, pearls are the result of a biological process involving molluscs. Although mussels and other molluscs can technically produce pearls, this is much rarer and oysters are by far the most common source of pearls – including those found in Lullu’s luxury pearl jewellery.
How do pearls form & grow?
Pearls are formed as a defensive process when an oyster reacts to an irritant within its shell. The protective layer is what eventually makes a pearl which is then extracted.
The process of how pearls are formed is the same in both cultured and natural pearls, with the exception of the irritant. In a natural setting, the irritant which starts the forming of the pearl would likely be a parasite of some sort. In cultured pearls, a skilled expert cuts a small slit into the mantle of the oyster and implants a bead or piece of tissue from another oyster. This implanted irritant then kicks off the pearl-forming process.
What are pearls made of?
After the irritant is introduced, the oyster begins to produce nacre in order to protect itself. Nacre is a coating which builds up in layers and creates an iridescent cover over the irritant – this becomes the pearls that we’re all so familiar with once they are harvested.
How long does it take for pearls to form?
When it comes to how pearls form, things like the temperature of the water, the time of year and the cleanliness of the water will all influence how quickly a pearl can be produced. Freshwater pearl oysters generally produce anything from 6 to 20 pearls, whereas saltwater pearl oysters only produce one pearl at a time. It’s often thought that a single pearl might be ready within a couple of months, or maybe a year, but this is incorrect.
In reality, an oyster normally takes around 3-6 years on average to produce a single pearl which is of high enough quality to be used in jewellery. Typically, freshwater pearls are produced more quickly than saltwater pearls.
How are pearls harvested?
When the pearls are done growing, the harvest season begins. This is usually done manually, requiring great precision and attention to detail. Most pearl harvests are carried out in winter. The colder water slows nacre production and also produces better results in terms of colour and lustre. When harvesting is done carefully, the oysters can then recover and produce a second or even third pearl going forward.
How are pearls prepared for jewellery?
Once the pearls have been harvested, it’s time to get them necklace-ready! Preparing pearls for jewellery involves first soaking them for a few days in a cleaning solution to help remove any deposits or odour. After this they are polished and because the surface is porous it is treated with a special oil or mixture, and then sorted according to size. Never buy untreated pearls as they won’t last long. From here, they are assessed and sorted further into increasingly smaller groups or batches. The sorting process evaluates the pearls according to colour, shape, quality, and value. As you can imagine, evaluating each pearl in this process can be very time consuming and requires a great deal of knowledge.