Pearls were formed from teardrops of the moon that fell into the sea.
Myth of unknown origin
Many people (myself included until recently) believe pearls come from oysters…which is true in saltwater, but freshwater mussels also produce them. First of all, a pearl is considered an organic gem, meaning that it comes from a living source, the same as coral. The process of forming a pearl starts when an ‘intruder’ (a piece of shell, coral, or bone) gets inside the mollusk and, in self-defence, the oyster or mussel produces a mother-of-pearl type substance called nacre which, over time, builds up around the foreign object and creates a pearl. The longer the pearl stays inside the mollusk, the more nacre builds up, and the larger the pearl becomes.
So, if the process is the same, are freshwater and saltwater pearls the same?
Not really. Freshwater pearls tend to develop thicker nacre, which means there is more lustre (the gorgeous shimmer) and they are more durable (important as nacre can wear away over time or even get chipped off). Freshwater mussels also tend to produce a wider range of colours, with no indication what they might be until the mollusk is opened. If you’re like me and think there’s only one pearl inside, a freshwater mussel can actually produce up to 50 pearls at a time! Rare…but it does happen.
Saltwater pearls have historically been more sought-after. They include three main varieties: Akoya Pearls known for their lustre, South Sea Pearls considered to be the largest, and Tahitian Pearls which are arguably the most well-known for their gorgeous iridescent colours as well as thick nacre.
Did you know…99.9% of saltwater pearls are not natural, but in fact cultured?! What does that mean? Find out in my next blog post!