The pearl, whether natural or cultured, are created in the sea and in freshwater lakes by oysters and mussels. Pearls are produced by cells in the mantle of the oyster which secretes a crystalline form of calcium carbonate, a substance similar to our fingernails. The primary role of these cells is to protect the creature by creating the shell and covering any irritant with a smooth layer to prevent damage to the oyster. The best pearls are generally are found singly, but over 80 tiny seed pearls have been found in one oyster.
Today, natural pearls are rare and most pearls – whether they are fresh or salt water – are farmed or cultured by inserting a piece of shell or small bead into the mantle of the oyster or mussel. The price and quality of each pearl is based on the size, shape, colour, number of blemishes and thickness of the layer of calcium carbonate which gives it that fabulous lustre.
Black and coloured cultured Tahitian pearls: Image by Paul Hartley, Hartley Studios: www.hartley studios.com