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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Pearls

Pearls have been used at the centre of stunning jewellery pieces like the ones within our collection for centuries, having become one of the world’s most highly coveted gemstones.

They are also one of the most unique in their origins – a natural treasure, pearls are the only stone on earth harvested from animals.

With a rich history does, of course, come plenty of surprising information.

So, what are pearls? Here at Gatsby Jewellery, pearls are one of the many incredible stones that make up the pieces within our extensive antique collection.

These are just a few of the facts that add to the illustrious past, present and origins of pearls.

Pearls are the world’s oldest known gem

Pearls are officially considered the world’s oldest gemstones, dating back millions of years.

The oldest known pearl dates back to 420BC, having been discovered within a fragment of jewellery inside the sarcophagus of a Persian princess – this famous piece is now on display within the Louvre, Paris.

Throughout history, they have been considered a sign of wealth and importance, having been presented as gifts to royalty across the world since 2300BC. Infamous emperor Julius Caesar even introduced a law in the 1st century prohibiting anyone who was not a member of the ruling class from wearing or owning pearls!

Fortunately, no such law exists these days, so you’re free to browse our stunning collection of antique pearl jewellery regardless of royal status.

Pearls take up to eight years to form

Pearls are created when a mollusc’s shell is infiltrated by a tiny foreign body, such as a parasite or grain of sand.

Incredibly, the creatures have evolved to produce a protective calcium carbonate coating called nacre, which forms around the foreign body to reduce any irritation it might cause – a pearl is essentially the result of layers of compressed nacre.

Depending on how compact and ‘tight’ these layers are, the pearl could take anywhere from a few months to several years to form in its entirety.

Freshwater pearls tend to form faster, whilst rare saltwater pearls may take almost a decade to form.

Pearls can vary in value by millions

The value of an authentic pearl may run anywhere between a few hundred pounds to several million and is dependent on a wide range of elements. with the first contributing factor being whether it is a freshwater pearl or a saltwater pearl – saltwater pearls are rarer, and therefore generally higher in value.

Pearls can also be natural, where the sand/parasite enters the mollusc naturally, or cultured, where it is added artificially with the intention of creating the pearl by pearl farmers – because of this, cultured pearls generally sit at the more affordable end of the scale.

The value of pearl jewellery then differs dependent on the other materials used, the quality of the craftsmanship and the age of the piece.

At Gatsby Jewellery, our range of antique pearl pieces includes everything from this beautiful Victorian-era diamond and pearl necklace to this breath-taking mid-century bracelet, which combines 374 saltwater pearls with step cut rubies.

Every pearl is unique

Whether cultured or naturally occurring, saltwater or freshwater, each and every pearl is entirely unique.

As the only gemstone in the world extracted from animals, the many variables involved in the way that they are formed lead to imperfections within the pearl itself.

These may be immediately visible when inspecting the pearl or they may be so incredibly subtle that they are barely noticeable at all.

This is one of the many reasons why handcrafted pearl jewellery is some of the most coveted and valuable jewellery on the market.

There are many different kinds of pearl

Whilst each is unique, pearls can be placed into a variety of different categories.

As previously mentioned, pearls can be both cultured and naturally occurring, as well as found within both freshwater and saltwater. Natural saltwater pearls, like the ones featured in this incredible art deco pearl and diamond brooch (circa. 1930), are considered some of the rarest of their kind.

Whilst there are around 50,000 species of mollusc across the world, only three are used in saltwater pearl farming, meaning that there are three major categories of cultured saltwater pearl – Tahitian, Akoya and South Sea. These are each vastly different in appearance, size and shape.

Pearls have their own specific grading system

Due to the many differences found in pearls and their overall complexity, they are graded according to a very particular set of factors.

The most popular pearl grading system used today is the system designed by the Gemmological Institute of America, which uses the size, lustre, shape, colour, surface quality and nacre quality to determine the overall grade of pearl.

A grade between A and AAA (the highest) is then awarded as a result.

Pearls naturally occur in a range of colours

The most common colours of pearl are cream, grey, champagne and white, but they can be found within a much wider range of colours.

Pearls are also found in colours such as purple, black, blue, green, pink and deep brown. Some of these colours are much rarer than others – for instance, natural black pearls can be formed exclusively by Pinctada Margaritifera oysters.

The main contributing factor in deciding the colour of the pearl is the colour of the mollusc’s shell, though pearl farmers have developed techniques that can deliberately determine the colour of cultured pearls.

Pearls are rich in symbolism

It’s no surprise that, in the thousands of years that we have been incorporating pearls into jewellery, they have developed their own deep meaning and symbolism.

Their rich history and widespread popularity mean that they have been used to represent many different things across the world, including wisdom, fertility, perfection, purity and innocence.

In the modern Western world, they are most commonly seen as a symbol of loyalty, traditionally representing 30th anniversaries for married couples.

They are also the birthstone of June, alongside alexandrite and moonstone.

Pearls come in a variety of shapes

As well as occurring in a variety of colours, pearls can also be found in a wide variety of sizes and shapes.

The eight widely recognised shapes of pearl are round, semi-round, circled, drop, pear, button, oval and baroque.

Pearls must be carefully maintained

As evidenced by our extensive range of vintage pearl jewellery, pearls can last for hundreds of years if they are properly cared for – take the excellent quality of this stunning Edwardian pearl & diamond ring at over a century old.

However, pearls are incredibly soft gems, and must be worn with caution to avoid scratching and damaging them.

To maintain the lustre and beauty of a pearl over time, avoid contact with harsh chemicals (hairspray, hand sanitiser, harsh perfumes, etc.), seek professional cleaning and store them in a soft cloth when they aren’t being worn.


As delicate as they are, however, pearls are certainly a stunning and worthwhile investment. If you’re yet to add some of these beautiful natural gems to your own collection, why not browse our range of vintage and antique pearl jewellery now?