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In Asia, references can be found dating back 4,000 years discussing the importance of pearls. The rulers of ancient India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) also had high appreciation of the pearl. We know that pearl fishing flourished throughout the Roman period. The Persian Gulf became a source starting in 300 BC.

The ancient Greeks believed that pearls should be a part of the wedding experience. This thought process continued through the Middle Ages to present day.

Christopher Columbus discovered the existence of pearls in the Caribbean and the rest of the New World. Royalty in Europe and Asia basked in this newfound resource to the extreme. Pearls from the New World and Persian Gulf provided most of the world's production of natural pearls in the early 20th century. These sources were almost totally exhausted because of demand.

The pearl, symbol of purity, virtue and modesty, is one of the most precious types of jewelry and have been harvested and worn for more than 4,000 years. The way they are acquired - and their appearance - has changed dramatically over time, especially in the past hundred years, but pearl jewelry nonetheless continues to be a classic.

Technically known as an "organic gem", a pearl is formed when an irritant, such as sand or a parasite, becomes lodged in the shell of an oyster. The oyster deposits layers of a semi-translucent crystalline material called "nacre" around the intruder, where it builds up in layers like the rings of a tree. This process of building up can continue for years, resulting in a pearl. In nature, pearls take many years to develop and often have irregular shapes, ranging from slightly off-spherical to twisting and bulging shapes called "baroque". In any shape, natural pearls are rare and very costly.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, it was learned that if a sphere of material was placed into an oyster and the oyster stimulated correctly, the oyster would coat the sphere with nacre, creating an almost perfectly round pearl. The longer the pearl remains in the oyster, the larger and more valuable the pearl becomes. These are called "cultured" pearls. Almost all pearls used in jewelry today, including all the pearls sold by Gordon's, are cultured pearls. Pearls are cultured around the world today, and different types of oysters - or mollusks in freshwater - raised in different environments create cultured pearls with different sizes, colors and other qualities.

A pearl's value is based on five factors:

Luster and orient: Luster is the sharpness and intensity of reflections on the pearl's surface, and orient is the iridescent colors one sees within the pearl. The luster should be bright and not dull or chalky looking. In fine quality cultured pearls, one can see the reflection of close objects in the pearl. The higher the luster and orient, the more valuable the pearl.

Color: Color describes both the main color (usually white, black or yellow) and the undertone (often pink, rose, or even green). In addition, pearls can be dyed any shade to meet personal preference. Black pearls are called Tahitian pearls.

Cleanliness (Surface): The cleaner the surface of a cultured pearl, the more valuable it is. Cleanliness refers to the absence of bumps, spots, cracks and blemishes on the surface of the pearl. Some imperfections are expected on all real pearls, natural or cultured, but the fewer and less noticeable they are, the better. Water temperature fluctuations and pollution can make a dramatic impact on pearl surface cleanliness.

Shape: Since cultured pearls are grown by mollusks in nature, it is very rare to find a perfectly round specimen. In general, spherical pearls are the most prized. However, it is common to find small imperfections of shape, which can sometimes be desirable as long as they are symmetrical. For example, teardrop shaped pearls are often used in earrings and pendants. Baroque pearls are irregular in shape. They can be very beautiful and lustrous while costing less than a comparable, more round cultured pearl.

Size: Cultured pearls are measured by their diameter in millimeters. In general, larger cultured pearls are more rare and more costly. The price rises significantly with the size of a pearl. Pearls can range in size from 1mm to 20mm depending on the variety of the pearl. The average sized pearl purchased today is 7 - 7.5mm.

Cultured pearl strands and lengths:

Collar - 12 - 13 inches. Usually made up of 3 or more strands.
Choker - 14 -16 inches. Most adaptable length for most necklines.
Princess - 17 - 19 inches. Enhancers look best on this length.
Matinee - 20 - 24 inches.
Opera - 28 - 36 inches. Can be doubled and worn as 2-strand choker.
Rope - over 36 inches. If pearls are over 7.5mm, you can add mystery clasps in strategic locations to break the piece down in multi-length combinations.

It is important to look at how well matched pearls are when combined in jewelry, such as on a necklace or in earrings. You should look for pearls that are essentially the same size, color, shape and luster. Keep in mind that the more well-matched pearls there are in a piece of jewelry, the higher the cost. That's why pearl earrings cost more than two individual pearls.

When you buy cultured pearls, keep in mind that they are fairly soft as gems go. They can be scratched easily if they bump into things and can also be scratched by other jewelry they might come into contact with. Keep them separate from harder gems in your jewelry box.

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