The Pearl Girl's Pearl Collection: An Intro to Tahitian, South Sea, Akoya, Freshwater, and Natural Pearls

You know the little guy in The Lord of the Rings who says "Myy precioussss!" all the time? Every time I look at my pearl collection–or just the box, even–I hear his voice. Scary, isn't it?

  freshwater pearls
This is the one that started it all–my first "major" pearl purchase was this absolutely flawless Chinese freshwater in the most delicate lilac-pink color.

I'm not sure why I've always been such a fan of pearls. I'm a girly girl, maybe it's as simple as that. My grandmother wore pearls but not until I was older, and my mother is almost as crazy about them now as I am, but I didn't grow up coveting pearls like some little girls do. It was a couple of years after college that the bug bit, so to speak, and I've been reveling in my pearl addiction ever since. When friends call me "pearl girl," they might as well be calling me "Your Majesty." Ha! I love it.

Wild Pearls or Natural Pearls?

I made an effort in Tucson earlier this year to round out some missing pieces in my collection, natural pearls mostly, and I'm always shopping for fun shapes of baroques. Now the only openings left on my list are a melo pearl (which honestly will probably never happen–I'm not crazy enough about them to part with that much moola) and a conch pearl, which, on the other hand, I'd probably give up chocolate for, if there was an offer. Some of the other natural pearls–scallop pearls, quahog pearls, etc.–just aren't "pearly" enough for me to want them, though they're unique and beautiful in their own ways.

natural pearl collection  
I happened upon this collection of natural pearls at a local auction when I was home in Tennessee a few weeks ago, what a steal! They're not spectacular but they are all natural, most likely freshwater pearls, and I love imagining how this little collection came to be, where they came from, who harvested them . . .

They're certainly rarer and generally more valuable, but natural pearls also seem to have a sense of magic about them that cultured pearls don't really have. A couple of years ago in Tucson I attended a lecture called "Sex and the Wild Pearl" (who could pass that up??) in which Yolanda Ortega Stern spoke about her book by the same name and growing up with incredibly large, natural pearls that weren't prized then, though their shells were. Can you imagine?

Natural pearls are pearls that were not nucleated by man but that developed on their own, thanks to the oyster or mollusk that grew them. However, the term "natural" is often used to describe pearls (and so many other things) incorrectly, meaning anything from "genuine" to "naturally colored." So Stern has adopted the term "wild" to distinguish truly natural pearls that are in no way cultured (nucleated by man). I think it's the perfect choice.

She told wonderful tales about her grandmother keeping a trunk full of the discarded wild pearls that her shell fisherman grandfather found and how they had such a glow about them that the children used them to see by during the night. Swoon!

  baroque pearl collection
I bought this motley pearl family from a designer in Tucson a few years ago who was destashing. It's hard to see their incredibly iridescent colors in this photo, but I fell for them right away, and it was the beginning of my passion for baroque pearls. I assume they are Chinese freshwater pearls.

I was nearly drooling the whole time, but one truly beautiful point from Stern's lecture really touched me, pearl lover that I am. She spoke about how many people say that pearls form when the creature (in the oyster or mollusk) coats an irritant with nacre–that's the common story that everyone hears, right? But Stern didn't quite believe that was the whole story, because if that's all there is to it, she asked, why doesn't the creature stop coating the intruder once it is smooth and sufficiently coated and, presumably, no longer irritating?

Her belief is that the creature continues releasing the nacre and creating the pearl because it somehow knows it should, that it is its destiny to do so. That just about made me cry and I'm going to believe it forever.

My Pearl Collection

I like any opportunity to write about gemstones, and since I've written about my pearls so often, a few of you have asked to see the precioussses. I'm happy to oblige! Pearl is June's birthstone (lucky babies!), after all, so it seems like the perfect time. I never like to play favorites with my pearls, but if I did, it would be these–and these are just loose pearls, mind you. Don't get me started on pearl jewelry!

natural Baja pearl and natural abalone pearl

The tiny one on the left is a natural Baja pearl. It's teeny but rare and has a gorgeous natural green allover color that I don't see too often in pearls that aren't dyed. The one on the right is a natural abalone pearl with the beautiful color variations abalone is known for. Most of them are shaped like claws or teeth, in my opinion, so I chose this one for its more pearl-like shape.

two natural pearls from the Mississippi River: Cyclonaias tuberculata on left and a Tennessee heelsplitter Lasmigona holstonia on right

The double-heart pink pearl on the left is a natural pearl from the Cyclonaias tuberculata, a Mississippi River freshwater mollusk. The lumpy little pink thing on the right is also natural pearl from the Mississippi River, from a Tennessee Heelsplitter mollusk (Lasmigona holstonia). These are so uncommon that they don't even have common names like South Sea pearls or abalone pearls.

carved South Sea pearl and large creamy white pearl from Burma

At first I didn't like the idea of carving pearls because it seemed a shame to carve into that beautiful nacre, but then I realized it's most often blemished pearls that are carved and it gives them a value they probably wouldn't have otherwise. This is a South Sea pearl; Tahitians are often carved as well. On the right is a big beautiful white pearl from Burma.

natural and keishi pearl collection in fun shapes, mermaid-shaped pearl

I love the shape of these lumpy stick pearls and feather pearls. The one on the far right looks so much like a mermaid with long hair and her hands behind her back. I love seeing things in pearls, just like with clouds.

Chinese freshwater rosebud pearls

These nubby ones are Chinese freshwater rosebud pearls. I'm not sure how they got that name, because they look nothing like rosebuds to me. I probably would've named them peony pearls or popcorn pearls.

circled or circlé Paspaley South Sea pearls

These lovelies are a pair of circled or circlé Paspaley South Sea pearls given to me by a dear friend as thanks for caring for her two beautiful fluffy white pups. Every time I see the smaller ends of these pearls, I think of the pups' noses. Paspaley pearls, farmed in Australia by the Paspaley family, have quite a pedigree and are considered the finest South Sea pearls in the world. I'm thrilled to own these and grateful for the very special gift.

pig-shaped or cat-shaped pearl, butterfly-shaped pearl

These pearls remind most people of cats, but they're pigs in my mind. That's a South Sea on the left and Chinese freshwater on the right of the first photo. The other pearl in the right photo is a Chinese freshwater keshi pearl that looks so much like a butterfly to me. Keshi pearls are an interesting combo of natural and nucleated; they're sort of byproduct pearls found in nucleated pearls that are presumed to be accidentally nucleated by an errant piece of tissue. So it's hard to make the call whether they're nucleated or not; that could be why this term is so misused.

multiple shades of Japanese Akoya pearls

These are all the pearls I've harvested myself from the Akoya pearl oysters that my dad sends me from time to time. It's messy work but I can't say how much I love harvesting my own pearls and being the first person to see them. It's like delivering pearl babies!

Chinese freshwater keshi "cornflake" pearls  and Chinese freshwater feather pearls

These are Chinese freshwater keshi "cornflake" pearls on the left and Chinese freshwater feather pearls on the right. The colors, iridescence, and texture in these feather pearls makes them so unique and interesting to me. 

natural freshwater feather pearls from the Kentucky Lake portion of the Tennessee River

These are natural freshwater pearls from the Kentucky Lake portion of the Tennessee River just west of Nashville. The two smaller ones on the top I purchased, but the larger one on the bottom was given to me by a diver named John, who harvested it, when I visited a pearl farm there a few years ago. It looks like an angel wing to me.

blue Tahitian pearl and acorn-shaped South Sea pearl

It's hard to tell in the photo, but this is the bluest (naturally blue) pearl I've ever seen. It's a Tahitian that I thought I lost–not only lost, but I thought I threw it away, which broke my heart–but then I found it! On the right is the South Sea pearl that looks like an acorn to me.

fun shaped Chinese freshwater and South Sea pearls

These shaped pearls are so fun. One looks like a four-legged animal with his head down–a horse, maybe? That's a Chinese freshwater. The one at the top is also a Chinese freshwater; it's my exclamation point pearl, since I can be a little dramatic sometimes, and below that is a South Sea pearl that looks like a snowman from a different angle. That big heart pearl is a Chinese freshwater keshi pearl with gorgeous color and iridescence.

pinkish South Sea pearls and peacock-colored Tahitian pearls

These are pinkish-cream South Sea pearls on the left and peacock-colored Tahitian pearls on the right, both of which have become more and more common in the market during recent years.

large Chinese freshwater fireball pearl

This big fireball pearl is most likely Chinese freshwater. It's full of color and iridescence with a creamy white pearl end–best of both worlds. Plus it's huge! I had to make it a pendant.

Chinese freshwater pearl with "pondslime"

This is just a Chinese freshwater pearl, but it's packed with so much vivid color (pinks and purples on one side, greens and purples on the other, and gold overtones all around) that I couldn't pass it up. What it lacks in shape it made up for in color! It's hard to imagine that there was no market for pearls like this just a few years ago. I wonder what became of all those unusual pearls?

I could go on and on! Pearls are definitely one of my favorite subjects to geek out on. But don't just take my word about them; you can learn more about them and all kinds of gemstones in great gemstone resources, like timeless back issues of Colored Stone magazine in the 2005-2006 Colored Stone Collection CD and the 2009-2010 Colored Stone Collection CD, and in the Gemstone Settings: The Jewelry Maker's Guide to Styles & Techniques book by Anastasia Young.

Resources: Most of my pearls come from American Pearl Company, Kojima Pearl, and Daniel Moshi.

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