About South Sea pearls
South Sea cultured pearls ... Many consider them the "Rolls Royce" of cultured pearls. They're certainly among the rarest and most costly cultured pearls available today. Cultivated in the waters off Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Japan and Thailand, the South Sea pearl's legacy reaches back thousands of years, when early Australian people believed the natural gem had supernatural powers, even using them in dream interpretation.
These ancient people used oyster shells, and the pearls found within them, not only as decorative elements in their tribal costumes, but traded them for food and tools. In fact, native peoples did the same throughout the South Pacific, wherever the oyster that produces South Sea pearls was found. But it wasn’t until the 16th and 17th centuries, after European explorers arrived in the South Pacific, that these unique pearls developed a global demand. So much so, that the Western World’s voracious appetite caused South Sea pearl-producing oysters to be harvested nearly to the point of extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, over 400 sailboats dedicated to pearl diving and shell-collection were operating in Australia alone, and over 3,500 hard-hat divers were employed, to gather shells for mother-of-pearl buttons and inlay, and of course, South Sea natural pearls.
It was in the early part of the 20th century, when pearl-culturing technology arrived from Japan, that pearl cultivation operations began appearing in the South Pacific, in the countries known for it today. Yet, it wasn’t until the 1950’s when South Sea pearls farms began producing harvests of commercial value. In the decades to follow, however, the number of pearl farms grew to where South Sea pearls were ready to make their splash in the cultured pearl market.
Recently, in the mid-1990’s, South Sea pearls became available in quantities large enough to meet the needs of prestige retailers around the world. Today, in terms of dollar value, South Sea pearls compose about 10 percent of the saltwater cultured pearl market.
South Sea Pearl Cultivation
South Sea pearls form in the "White Lipped" oysters Pinctada maxima. Because most South Sea pearls are cultivated from these wild, handpicked oysters, strict quotas have been established to prevent their depletion.
Pearl-farm divers go 10 to 80 meters deep in search of healthy and only mature oysters for growing South Sea pearls. Though most South Sea pearl-oyster divers today use modern scuba equipment, in the Philippines, oysters are still routinely collected by "free-divers" who use no equipment at all. Some South Sea pearling operations employ pearling ships; unique to South Sea pearl cultivation.
Nucleated South Sea pearl oysters are nurtured in isolated bays of the purest water, far distant from industrial areas. After 3 or 4 months, each oyster is x-rayed to confirm that its nucleus has not been rejected. Oysters with nuclei still inside are returned to the water to continue cultivation, a period that lasts 2 to 3 years.
South Sea Pearl Harvesting
Because of their long, 2-to-3 year cultivation period, South Sea pearls develop an exceptionally thick coating of nacre -- from 2 to 6 millimeters -- perhaps the thickest of all saltwater cultured pearl varieties. When extracting South Sea pearls from their oysters, technicians take special cares not damage them. If the oyster is healthy, another nucleus is placed inside -- a process that may be repeated up to 4 times for a single oyster.
South Sea Pearl Processing
Fine South Sea cultured pearls look exactly like natural pearls. One can only tell the difference by examining them by x-ray. Therefore, most South Sea pearls are not treated, dyed or enhanced in any way. Only cleaning and slight polishing are needed to bring out their natural beauty and glow.
South Sea Pearl Quality Evaluation
Because of their rarity, tremendous size, and silky luster, South Sea pearls command premium prices, and are coveted by jewelry aficionados. Gem quality South Sea pearls are extremely rare for two important reasons: one is that the Pinctada maxima oyster used to cultivate them is a wild species -- one can never be certain how many will be available for cultivation. The second reason rests in the pearl's long cultivation period -- any pearl is more likely to become flawed the longer it's left in the oyster, and therefore, large, round, unflawed pearls are always extremely rare.
Luster of South Sea Pearls
Luster refers both to a pearl's brilliance -- the way its surface reflects light -- and its inner glow: the way it refracts light.
The nacre coating of South Sea pearls is especially thick, giving them a soft yet deep, rich luster unlike that of any other type of pearl. Their luster may be referred to as "satiny," less "mirror-like" than that of Akoya pearls. South Sea pearls also possess a beautiful soft iridescence found only in pearls with exceptionally thick nacre.
Surface of South Sea Pearls
Surface quality refers to the amount and kinds of flaws that appear on the outside of a pearl, ranging from "clean" -- virtually free of spots, bumps, pits, cracks, circles and wrinkles -- to "heavily blemished" -- pearls dominated by such flaws.
Non-damaging blemishes such as spots, bumps, pits, circles and wrinkles will occur on South Sea pearls. But remember, as products of nature, pearls are almost never flawless, and flaws don't always detract from the value or beauty of a pearl. This is especially so with South Sea cultured pearls, whose exceptionally long cultivation period makes flawless or slightly flawed South Sea pearls extremely rare.
Shape of South Sea Pearls
South Sea pearls can be found in all the shapes possible: all beautiful in their own right -- "round," "drop," "button," "oval," "semi-round," "circle -- or "ringed"," "baroque," and "semi-baroque."
Because of their popularity, the "round" and "drop" shapes are usually the most expensive, but as always, personal preference dictates the shape each customer will find most beautiful.
Color of South Sea Pearls
South Sea pearls appear in a wide range of colors, with the most common being white, silver/white, pink, and gold. As a note, South Sea pearls produced in Australia usually come in white; so too with those from the Philippines and Indonesia, though they tend to be creamier, more champagne or golden in color.
Size of South Sea Pearls
South Sea pearls are among the largest of all saltwater cultured pearl varieties, ranging from 8 millimeters to as large as 22 millimeters. Their average size is 15 millimeters. Note that South Sea pearls are also found in smaller sizes, between 2 and 8 millimeters. Pearls of this size are usually very baroque "keshii" pearls, a very rare type of pearl that is all nacre with no nucleus. [Kesh-ee]