How are South Sea Pearls produced?
Pinctada maxima, a marine bivalve mollusk belonging to the Pteriidae family of oysters is responsible for creating marvelous South Sea pearls. It is also commonly known as the South Sea oyster. Pinctada maxima has two different color varieties: the white-lipped oyster and the gold-lipped oyster. They can be distinguished by the hues visible on their interior edges. Unlike Akoya pearls that are known for their mirror-like shine, South Sea pearls are revered across the world for their soft and satiny glow. Not only are they larger than the average pearl, but are also famed for displaying exceptional smoothness and a perfect round shape.
Cultivation of South Sea pearls is not an easy process as the oysters involved are not just rare, but also sensitive organisms. Due to these and many other factors, South Sea pearls are one of the most expensive varieties of cultured pearls available today.
The South Sea that lies between the northern coast of Australia and the southern coast of China is the native habitat of the large Pinctada maxima. The water present here is extremely clean and filled with the South Sea pearl oyster’s favorite food source called plankton. In other words, the oyster-friendly environment is a pivotal reason why the Pinctada maxima is able to speed up the production of thick layers of nacre around the manually inserted nucleus bead. This ultimately results in exceptionally lustrous pearls.
Currently, areas throughout the Indian and Pacific Ocean, primarily Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar cultivate South Sea pearls.
The Art of Nucleation
South Sea pearls are among the largest commercially harvested cultured pearls in the world. The intricate process of its birth begins by surgically placing a perfectly round bead nucleus into the gonad (reproductive organ) of the oyster. As the South Sea oyster is big in size, it is able to accept a large-sized nucleus bead. A tiny piece of mantle tissue, measuring approximately 1.0mm, from a different donor oyster is also included. Once the surgical incision is covered, the oyster is given time to heal by returning it to the water or placing it in an ‘after-surgery’ tank.
Soon the presence of the mantle tissue triggers the oyster to create a pearl sac around the nucleus bead. This is followed by the secretion of nacre around it and the process continues for a time duration that can last anywhere between two to three years. Meanwhile, the oyster continues to cover the bead nucleus placed on its inside with thousands of concentric layers of nacre and conchiolin (a tough, insoluble protein produced by the oyster). As the gonad of the Pinctada maxima is larger than that of an Akoya oyster, it is able to deposit thicker layers of nacre around the nucleus. The warm sea water also positively influences this process by speeding up the oyster’s metabolism. After a duration of minimum two years, beautiful South Sea pearls finally get ready for harvesting.
Did you know?
The Pinctada maxima undergoes the surgical implantation process when it’s only about half developed, from 4.7 inches to 6.7 inches in size, or about 24 months old. Even though it accepts only one nucleus bead at a time (unlike the Akoya oyster), the Pinctada maxima can be nucleated up to three times over the course of many years.
Quality & Grading
Unlike other mined gemstones, the pearl is an organic jewel created by a living creature. For this reason, the grading parameters used to assess its quality will be slightly different. But there are six important aspects that you should always keep in mind when looking for a good quality South Sea pearl.
- LusterAs mentioned earlier, the Pinctada maxima oyster lives in the warm climate of the South Sea. Due to this, they have a higher metabolism which leads them to secrete nacre at a faster rate. This causes South Sea pearls to have a satiny luster, which is soft and diffused around the edges. This is one of the important reasons why South Sea pearls are so sought-after.
- SurfaceIt is important to understand that even an heirloom quality South Sea pearl will almost always contain a small amount of subtle non-damaging blemishes. The reason for this, primarily, is a long production cycle which lasts for a minimum of two years and can go up to four years. During this prolonged period of pearl cultivation, the South Sea oyster undergoes different environmental setbacks, such as weather fluctuations. Therefore, some level of imperfection can be expected when buying this rare gem. But damaging flaws, such as deep fissures (cracks and pits) and chips caused when drilling will significantly bring down the value of the pearl.
- ColorSouth Sea pearls in white and silver hue, as well as those with blue overtones are produced by the silver-lipped Pinctada maxima. Champagne-colored and deeper golden varieties of South Sea pearls are made by the gold-lipped Pinctada maxima. After harvesting, all South Sea pearls are simply washed off and buffed to remove any residue as they have a naturally rich and beautiful color. In many cases, a Golden South Sea pearl costs more than the white one as it is believed to look more dramatic.
- ShapeIt is interesting to note that from each harvest, only 10 to 30% of South Sea pearls turn out to be near-round or in perfect round shape. You’ll also find baroque and drop-shaped South Sea pearls which are equally loved by jewelry designers and collectors alike. They are seen in a lot of pieces that celebrate their unique shape and luster while being affordable.
- Nacre ThicknessIn comparison to all the other cultured saltwater pearl types, White and Golden South Sea pearls are believed to have the thickest layers of nacre. It can average anywhere between 2.0 to 4.0mm or more, which is quite impressive.
- SizeThe reason why South Sea pearls are available in big sizes is that the Pinctada Maxima is a large oyster that can grow up to 12 inches in diameter. This enables pearl farmers to implant beads which are much bigger than the ones used for other saltwater oysters, such as the Akoya. By the time of harvest, the Pinctada maxima is able to produce pearls that can range anywhere from 9mm to 20mm in size. Generally, you’ll be able to find a South Sea cultured pearl as big as 12mm with much ease.Currently, there is no universally accepted method for evaluation of pearl quality. The below-mentioned features, however, will help you distinguish an heirloom-grade South Sea pearl from the rest.
- Heirloom (AAAA)These are exceptional quality and perfect round South Sea pearls that represent the top 1% of the harvest. They have a bright color and 95% of the pearl surface is flawless with only 5% slightly concentrated imperfections. They are the go-to choice if you’re looking for exceptionally beautiful and top-quality South Sea pearls.
- Best (AAA)These high-grade South Sea pearls represent the top 10% of the harvest. They have thick nacre, which means they are high on luster albeit with slight blemishes. More specifically, 80-85% of their surface is flawless and the remaining 15-20% contains minor imperfections. South Sea pearls belonging to this category are near-round in shape.
- Better (AA)These medium-grade South Sea pearls make up for the top 33% of the harvest. They have medium nacre, and 40% of their surface is flawless. The remaining 50% has minor imperfections, while 10% contains deep flaws. The color of these pearls will be less vivid than the other two categories mentioned above.
Does this gem undergo any treatments?
South Sea pearls exude a naturally beautiful, satiny warm luster. They do not require any kind of artificial treatment to enhance the color. Several jewelers, however, will bleach a poor quality White South Sea pearl in order to make it fit enough for use in jewelry. Always bear in mind that genuine South Sea pearls are never treated in any way. In order to avoid being deceived, we recommend that you buy only from a reputed jewelry brand like Angara, which does not sell artificially treated South Sea pearls.
How valuable is a South Sea Pearl today?
It’s safe to assume that South Sea pearls demand a high value because not only are they visually enticing, but are scarce and unusually large as well. Quality, shape and size play an important role in determining the final price, but both varieties of the South Sea pearl can easily retail for thousands of dollars. Baroque-shaped South Sea pearls are also treasured and used in jewelry for their ‘imperfect’ look and unique natural beauty. Their shape makes them more affordable than the perfect-round South Sea pearls.
What makes South Sea pearls a must-have?
- Thickest nacre of all cultured saltwater pearl types: The average nacre of an Akoya pearl is 0.35 to 0.7mm, whereas the nacre of a South Sea pearl (both White and Golden) measures 2 to 6mm. The unusual thickness causes this gem to showcase a unique sheen that is often perceived to be soft yet captivating.
- A fine blend of luxury and rarity: In comparison to all pearl types, South Sea is the rarest. This can be attributed to several factors, such as their limited implantation possibilities and large size. It also takes a minimum of two years to harvest a single South Sea pearl, which further contributes to its specialty. Whether you pick a honey golden hue or a scintillating white color, South Sea pearls never fail to dazzle with their soft, yet luxurious luster. Since only a small percentage of this gem is spherical in shape, any piece of jewelry adorned with shape-matched South Sea pearls must be considered a valuable treasure.
Style & Care Tips
The right way to flaunt South Sea Pearls
If you have a taste for luxury and want to exude a regal, timeless charm then look no further than the rare and precious South Sea pearls. The color you pick, white or golden, can be entirely a matter of personal choice. A necklace is one of the best ways to wear a South Sea pearl in your preferred hue. They look especially nice when teamed up with a pantsuit or a one-piece dress. You can also throw in a jacket to complete this super chic look. A South Sea pearl bracelet is another all-time favorite jewelry type and is versatile enough to be worn with both semi-casual and formal attires.
Always keep in mind that South Sea pearls are spectacular by themselves, so they look best when worn with solid-hued outfits, muted tones as well as stripes. Avoid wearing them with big, vague prints as they’ll overpower the gem. In simple words, when flaunting South Sea pearls always try to aim for sophistication.
Keep Them Lustrous
South Sea pearls are delicate treasures and need to be treated with love and care. Keep the following simple tips in mind to ensure they look brand new for years to come.
- South Sea pearls are rare and understandably very valuable. They must never be tossed on top of or next to other gems. Store them separately in a compartmentalized jewelry box and also ensure that the clasps and pins of the pieces are fastened.
- Acid and alkaline can negatively affect this organic gemstone. Therefore to preserve the luster of the South Sea pearl, you must keep it away from cosmetics, hair sprays and perfume.
- Its radiance can also be damaged by perspiration; therefore don’t forget to wipe the piece gently with a soft cloth after use.
- Immediately go to a professional jeweler to fix loose prongs, clasps or screws in your jewelry. Regular inspections of the piece will help you avoid any irreversible damage.
- South Sea pearl strands will require restringing from time to time by a professional, depending on how often they are worn.
- Strictly avoid the use of both ultrasonic and steam cleaners.