Tag: Tahitian Pearls

A South Sea Pearl Necklace

What’s the deal with so many pearl colors?

A variety of pearl colors

Pearls are sometimes referred to as the world’s most colorful gem, a title they have certainly earned! Rivaled only by garnets, which are available in every color of the rainbow, pearls are known for the amazing colors they display. However, not all of these colors occur naturally. There are many treatments that are considered acceptable in the jewelry trade to enhance the color and luster of the pearls in question. At Pearls International, we offer many color enhanced freshwater pearls so that you can find a color and style that suits your own personal flair. Note that when these treatments are done correctly, they do not detract from the value of the pearl. Here are the main treatments used to prepare pearls for use in jewelry:

Polishing: While it is is not necessary to cut a pearl or polish it in the manner you think of with other gemstones, they still have their own polishing procedure they are subjected to before being drilled and prepared to sell. They are simply tumbled in a salt water solution that is just course enough to remove any build up or organic matter from the pearls. This process can also sometimes remove small surface imperfections.

Maeshori: This is a process that originated in Japanese pearl farms, meaning “Before Treatment.” It refers to a range of treatments done at the farms, including polishing. When you hear of maeshori today, it means the process by which the pearl has been heated and then cooled in order to “tighten” up the nacre´ (smooth Mother-of-Pearl substance that forms the pearl) which causes the pearl to show increased luster. This process is comparable to a person getting a facelift.

Bleaching: Many freshwater and saltwater pearls are bleached to improve the color of white pearls. Bleaching also evens out some surface flaws. A natural color white strand will show slight variances in the hues of each pearl, while a bleached strand will appear very uniform. Pearl bleaching has been practiced for over 100 years and is considered an industry standard in production of white pearls.

Dyeing: Fancy color pearls such as cranberry and bright blue or green pearls have been treated with an organic dye. Sometimes freshwater pearls are dyed to mimic the color of saltwater pearls at a much lower price. Black freshwater pearls, for example, are dyed to look like Tahitian pearls. The same is true for chocolate color freshwater pearls. Chocolate Tahitian pearls are few and far between as it is, so it is a highly desired color based on rarity. Sometimes Tahitian pearls are dyed brown to make a matched chocolate Tahitian strand, without the pearl farmers having to wait the several years it would take to create a full strand of naturally chocolate color pearls. Dyeing a pearl does not detract from the value of the jewelry as long as it is done well. If you can see blotchiness on the surface of the pearl, or if you can see the original white color around and inside of the drill hole in the pearl, it has been poorly dyed. The color should be smooth and even across the surface of the pearl. Another common practice, related to dyeing, is called “pinking” which is most commonly done on Akoya pearls to increase the rosey overtones in the nacre´. This is achieved by soaking the pearls in a diluted red dye.

Freshwater Stick Pearl Necklace
Gorgeous color treated cranberry pearl necklace featuring both round pearls and stick pearls.

Irradiation: This is a treatment most commonly applied to saltwater pearls. It is rarely seen in freshwater pearls, because the cost of this treatment usually outweighs the value. The pearl is subjected to gamma rays, which darkens the pearl. In the case of saltwater pearls, it darkens the shell bead nucleus (which is made from a freshwater mussel). Because the center of the pearl has been darkened, the layers of nacre´ covering the pearl appear darker because of how the light refracts on the surface of the pearl, allowing you to see the nucleus underneath. The thicker the layers of nacre´ (so, the larger the pearl) the harder it is to see. Saltwater pearls treated in this manner will usually become silvery or gunmetal grey in color, not black. Freshwater pearls treated with irradiation will become very dark and it is a good way to get black freshwater pearls with high luster. It’s important to note that these pearls are not radioactive, and therefore are completely safe to wear and enjoy.

There are a couple of other treatments that some pearl farms may choose to do, but these are the most common and most acceptable in the pearl industry.

So, how can you tell if your pearls are a natural color or an enhanced color? Certain types of pearls are available in a range of natural colors. All others not listed are dyed or otherwise enhanced for fashion.

Akoya Pearls: Japanese Akoya pearls are one of the most popular pearl types on the market, and are the most obtainable saltwater pearls. They come in white and cream, with rose, silver, or gold overtones. They are also sometimes seen in a stunning silver-blue color, although these are very rare.

Graduated white akoya pearl necklace
Beautiful graduated white akoya pearl necklace.

South Sea Pearls: These rare treasures are available in white and gold, with the darkest golden pearls being considered the most valuable.

A South Sea Pearl Necklace
A multicolor south sea pearl necklace, showing the varying shades of gold and white these pearls naturally occur in.

Tahitian Pearls: One of the most sought after saltwater varieties of pearls, Tahitian pearls are prized for their dark color and ‘peacock’ overtones, although they can occasionally be found in chocolate as well. Most Tahitian pearls lean towards silver or grey rather than true “black.” (As in jet black, which is an unnatural color.) Pinctada margaritifera, the oyster that produces these gorgeous pearls, also produces their cousin, Fiji Pearls. Fiji Pearls are truly the most colorful pearl in the world, and one of the rarest. Because the waters they are farmed in are so nutrient-dense, they come in a rainbow of colors including the traditional blacks and greys, as well as bronze and gold.

Black Tahitian Pearls
Black peacock Tahitian Pearls

Sea of Cortez Pearls: As only one pearl farm is currently culturing these pearls, Sea of Cortez pearls are the most rare. They are also never enhanced to improve their color, so you know that if you purchase a Sea of Cortez pearl, it is unaltered by man once it leaves the oyster. Their colors are similar to those shown in black peacock Tahitian pearls, although they are somewhat more bold and rich in color than the Tahitians are.

Sea of Cortez Pearls
Pearls from the Sea of Cortez, produced from the Rainbow-Lipped Oyster

PS – You can click here to read more about the amazing Sea of Cortez and Tahitian black peacock pearls mentioned above!

Freshwater Pearls: Making up the bulk of the pearl market, most pearls you will come across while pearl shopping are freshwater. They take the least amount of time and effort from the pearl farmers to produce, and are cultured in several places around the world from a few different species of freshwater clams. These pearls naturally come in white and cream, as well as pastel colors such as peach, lavender, and pink. Any unusually dark or very brightly colored freshwater pearls are typically dyed.

Multicolor Freshwater Pearl Bracelet
Naturally occurring pastel color freshwater pearls, strung together in a bracelet.

When in doubt, a reputable company should always be honest with you about the jewelry you are buying – just ask!



Black Saltwater Pearls – The Leader in Pearl Sustainability

(This post is part of our blog series that deals with Pearls International’s take on social and environmental responsibility. For more information on how Pearls International gives back, please click here.)

Black Saltwater Pearls demand a much higher price on the market, and are harder to come by than their freshwater cousins. But, if you are into ethical, environmentally friendly jewelry, these saltwater pearls are worth the extra cost.

Black Saltwater Pearls come from two general areas, the Gulf of Mexico and Tahiti.  The Rainbow-Lipped Oyster (Pteria sterna) and the Panamic Black-Lipped Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica) are referred to as “Sea of Cortez” pearls, are found in the Gulf of Mexico.  Pearls from the Black-Lipped Oyster (Pinctada margaritifera) are thrive in the waters surrounding the Tahitian Islands.

We love these black saltwater pearls for their “peacock” ability – the wide variety of colors in their orient and their high luster allows them to capture almost any colors around them.  Because of this adaptability, they can flex to match any color or colors in your outfit!  These pearls are amazingly beautiful on the surface, but the more we dug into the world of pearl sustainability and ethical pearl farming techniques, the more we found that the value of these gems goes much deeper than the surface.

Sea of Cortez Pearls
Sea of Cortez pearls.

In the world of sustainability, the progress that has been made by the producers of the Rainbow-Lipped Oyster is incredible. Found only in the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico (the “Sea of Cortez”), this oyster is still extremely rare.   The beautiful pearl it creates was at one time so coveted that divers drove this species of oyster to the brink of extinction.

The popularity of pearls from the Rainbow-Lipped Oyster began as long ago as 1533, when Spanish Conqueror Hernán Cortez sent expeditioners into the area. The Spanish explorers were so taken with the pearls they saw natives wearing that for the next 300 years it became the area’s most valuable export, actually bringing in more capital than gold, silver and spices combined!  By the 1800’s, the species was near extinction.

In 1939 a ban was set in place to protect the oysters from being used for food (fishing ban), and along with the prohibition on pearl diving, the Mexican black pearl industry became virtually nonexistent.  But around 1996, the practice of culturing pearls slowly began to catch on in the area, bringing the Mexican pearl industry back to life.

In the wild, only ten spats (baby oysters) out of a million will grow to adulthood, however, around 80% of the oysters raised under the protective conditions of pearl farms survive long enough to breed successfully and multiply the population.  The Sea of Cortez pearl farms act as breeding stations, helping to re-populate the waters with the once critically endangered oysters.

The Perlas del Mar de Cortez pearl farm currently tends around 230,000 pearl oysters in their facilities, but less than 4,000 of these pearls are cultured per year. The pearls take two to three years to grow, meanwhile there are a host of predators that try to prey on the oysters. Difficulties abound, but the pearl farmers at Perlas del Mar de Cortez are determined to bring back these lovely pearls.  Sea of Cortez pearls are so rare that there are still no full strands of these beauties available on the market!

Sea of Cortez pearls
Amazing color variations on these Sea of Cortez pearls.

How is it possible for the Sea of Cortez pearls to go from near extinction to actually making their way one-by-one back onto the market? – The answer is that the pearl producers have invested a lot of time, care, and ethical business practices.

Sea of Cortez pearls are actually the only pearl to fully meet each and every one of the qualifications for Fair Trade Jewelry.  Pearl jewelry that is considered Fair Trade Jewelry contains pearls that are produced with great care to the environment, are never treated to enhance color, and in the production of which all workers are paid fair wages.

One example of the steps Perlas del Mar de Cortez pearl farm has taken towards sustainability is that it raises not one, but two types of native oysters.  The pearl producers culture only one of the two species, the Pteria sterna.  This means that the second species, Pinctada mazatlanica, is kept apart for the environmental benefits and to help grow the oyster population, rather than to draw in more profit.

Protective oyster cages in a pearl farm
Protective oyster cages in a pearl farm.

Another pearl farm, the Kamoka Pearl Farm in Tahiti, also stands out for its ethical farming methods. Here, the oyster’s journey toward making a pearl begins when it is just a spat. The farmers at Kamoka Pearl Farm put out their nets during the changing seasons, when oysters are breeding, to catch the baby oysters.  This gives them a secure place to grow.  Then two-and-a-half years pass under the care of the pearl farm before the oyster is large enough to produce a pearl.

Black Tahitian Pearls

Tahitian Black pearls

When the oyster is finally mature enough to undergo the surgical procedure of nucleation, precision tools and antibiotics are used in the process to insure the oyster’s health. Most saltwater pearl farms use shell bead nuclei from the Mississippi mussel, as it has a thicker shell than most other species. However, due to over-harvesting this mussel for culturing saltwater pearls, this animal is also becoming threatened. Therefore, the farmers at Kamoka use only mother-of-pearl beads from native oyster stock, usually their own Pinctada margaritifera, in order to protect the threatened Mississippi mussel.  The oysters are kept high above the sea floor, where they have more access to oxygen and food sources.

Oysters must be kept clean of barnacles and other growths in order to be healthy and produce perfect pearls. In order to remove the barnacles and growths, most pearl farms pull the oysters out of the water and spray them with a high-pressure hose. This method doesn’t harm the oysters and is cost-effective and fast, but it creates excess organic matter in the farming area that can negatively effect the water quality for fish and other animals.

Kamoka chooses to use a more environmentally-friendly method and allows the native fish populations to clean their oysters for them!  The oysters are moved  to waters where fish feed and the process works naturally, because the varied fish population feeds off of all the different organisms that grow on the oysters.  In this way, all of the oyster pests are handled while at the same time supporting and actually helping to grow the fish populations in the area.

The care that the oysters in this farm receive is second-to-none, and much of the rest of the company’s business practices are ethical and green. For example, all of their electricity is solar- or water-powered, their freshwater source comes from rainwater capture systems, and their septic systems are completely biodegradable.  The Kamoka Pearl Farm in Tahiti is truly an impressive example of how a modern pearl culturing company can give back to the environment.


A Kamoka Pearl Farmer inserting a nucleus into a Tahitian Black Lipped Oyster
A Kamoka Pearl Farmer inserting a nucleus into a Tahitian Black Lipped Oyster.

Sustainable pearl farming is a great industry.  It is gratifying to find companies that strive to do what is right for the environment, the consumer, and their employees even when it is not always the easiest course of action. Healthy oysters clean our oceans and rivers, so the more we have, the cleaner our water will be. And with a bi-product as beautiful as these black pearls, it’s a win-win!


www.rawpearls.com.au/our_pearls/rainbow_lipped_pearls, www.perlas.com.mx/en/, www.pearl-guide.com/cortez-pearls.shtml, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130811-eco-friendly-pearl-farming-kamoka-polynesia-oysters-environment/, http://www.kamokapearls.com/