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Pearl history
Pearls have been known and valued in many cultures throughout history.
We know that ancient People valued pearls highly, especially as a symbol of wealth and prestige, they adorned themselves with seashells and beads made from seashells long before recorded history, so it is not surprising that the earliest use of mother of pearl (Mother-of-pearl is the basic substance which is secreted by oysters and mollusks to form the inside of their shells. It is the same substance which forms pearls) in jewelry occurs in Egypt in about 5,200 years ago, where it was used to make cartouches and beads. There are rare examples of pearls in the paintings and statuary of the same eras in ancient Egypt, but pearls themselves appear to be uncommon in the ancient dynasties.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the history of pearls reached a major turning point. At that time, a number of Japanese researchers discovered independently the techniques which could be used to cause oysters to create pearls essentially "on demand." The man who finally combined the various technical processes with business acumen and worldwide marketing know-how was Kokichi Mikimoto the son of a restauranteur. Today, Mikimoto is credited with having created almost single-handedly the worldwide cultured pearl industry.

The effect on the pearl industry of the discovery of pearl culturing combined with Mikimoto's marketing enthusiasm cannot be understated. Within a span of less than 50 years at the beginning of the 20th century, thousands of years of pearl history were rewritten. Pearls -- historically the exclusive possessions of royalty and aristocracy -- became available to virtually anyone on the planet. Rather than pearl divers hunting, often in vain, for the elusive, naturally formed pearls, pearl farmers could now cultivate thousands upon thousands of pearls in virtually the same way as wheat or corn farmer grows his own crop. And pearl lovers throughout the world could reap the benefits.

China claims the earliest mention of pearls in their historical texts about 4,000 years ago. As far back as 2300 BC, Chinese records indicate that pearls were prized possessions of (and gifts to) royalty. Mentioned specifically were freshwater pearls from the river Hwai and the province of King Hau that were described as "not quite round", which is still a common description of freshwater pearls.
Chinese freshwater pearls really started to shine in 1998, when the market was again flooded with these pearls, with an estimated production of 800 tons. But this time, China surprised the world by introducing better-quality pearls in a palette of colors coupled with a stunning variety of shapes and sizes. Freshwater pearls could be found in sizes ranging from 1 mm to 15 mm, all of which maintained a relatively affordable price, once again taking business away from the Japanese akoyas. The value of freshwater pearls produced at farm level was estimated at US$170 million.
Chinese freshwater pearls have been a dominant force in the global pearl market for the past two decades. Improved farming techniques, a low-cost labor force, and the extensive cultivating experience of pearl producers has contributed to China's rise as a reputable pearl producer. To remain successful, China will need to continuously regulate production numbers and stabilize prices, thereby strengthening the image and value of freshwater pearls.

 

 

Pearl species

  • Natural pearl
    Natural pearls are formed more or less randomly, when some sort of irritant becomes lodged in the tissue of an oyster or mollusk. In response to the irritation, the oyster secretes nacre, a combination of calcium carbonate and organic substances, which gradually builds up in layers around the irritant. Over a period of several years, this build-up of nacre forms a pearl.
    The size, shape, and color of the pearl are determined by a combination of factors, including the size and shape of the original irritant, whether the mollusk is living in salt or freshwater, and the geographic region where the mollusk lives. Natural pearls of any commercial value or desirability are extremely rare. Instead, since the early part of the 20th century, cultured pearls have supplanted natural pearls as the most common and available pearls.
    The principle difference between "natural" and "cultured" pearls is the thickness of the nacre. Since natural pearls take longer to develop, there is generally a thicker layer of nacre surrounding the nucleus. It can take two to five years for a quality pearl to fully develop in the oyster. Many lower quality cultured pearls are created by inserting a large nucleus and hastening the process of nacre development. This results in a pearl with a very thin layer of nacre that will not have a great deal of luster, and will not be very durable over a long period.
    Natural pearls today tend to be found primarily in older jewelry from estate sales, auctions, and so forth -- in other words, existing pearls rather than new ones.

  • Cultured pearl
    Almost all pearls used for jewelry today are cultured pearls. Cultured pearls are "created" with the assistance of human intervention. A cultured pearl is formed when a small foreign object or irritant (nucleus) is embedded in the tissue of a mollusk or oyster. By surgically implanting this foreign object or nucleus into the tissue of the mollusk, the pearl farmer can induce the creation of a pearl. The pearls are usually harvested three years after the implanting of the nucleus, but it can take up to as long as six years before a pearl is produced.
    Kokichi MikimotoT¡¯s discovery revolutionized the pearl industry, because it allowed pearl farmers to reliably cultivate large numbers of high-quality pearls. In contrast to natural pearls -- which have widely varying shapes, sizes, and qualities, and which are difficult to find -- cultured pearls could be "designed" from the start to be round and primarily flawless. The oysters could be monitored during the several years required for each pearl to become fully formed, thus better insuring their health and survival. And the pearls could be grown by the tens of thousands, thereby bringing their cost down to a point where pearls became accessible to large numbers of people around the world.
    The only significant difference between "Natural" and "Cultured" pearls is that in the case of a natural pearl, the process begins accidentally; in the case of a cultured pearl, the process begins artificially. The end result is relatively the same.
    By x-raying a pearl, jewelers can determine whether it has been cultivated or is natural. If the nucleus in the center of the pearl is a perfectly round sphere, the jeweler will know that it has been "cultivated." When most pearl cultivators insert the nucleus or "grit", it is usually pefectly round, so as to produce a more valuable, round pearl. If the center is not perfectly round, the jeweler will conclude that the pearl is a genuine "natural" pearl, and give it a higher value.
    In short, the development of cultured pearls took much of the chance, risk, and guesswork out of the pearl industry, allowing it to become stable and predictable, and fostering its rapid growth over the past 100 years. Today the cultured pearl industry has effectively replaced the natural pearl industry, turning the natural gems of old into collectors' pieces.

  • Saltwater pearl
    Saltwater pearl oysters are nucleated using a bead usually prepared from mother-of-pearl. The bead serves as a mold around which the pearl nacre will develop. The resulting pearl will contain the bead at its center. The pearl tends to develop into the same shape as the original bead. Traditionally, most pearls were gathered from saltwater-dwelling oysters in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the coastal waters of India and Japan. Saltwater pearls are cultured by taking an oyster and prying it open a mere 2-3 centimeters. A technician then uses a special instrument to make a minute incision on the gonad (reproductive organ) of the oyster. A small nucleus is inserted into this hole, and a tiny piece of mantle tissue is placed behind it. The epithelial cells in this mantle tissue grow around the nucleus producing a pearl sac. This is where the pearl grows.
    Saltwater pearls tend to be more lustrous than their freshwater counterparts, thereby increasing their desirability and value.
    All saltwater pearls produced today are bead-nucleated pearls. Natural pearls are still collected in the Persian Gulf, but the yield is too small to account for any market value, and the pearls collected rarely leave the area.
    The three most common types of saltwater pearls are Akoya pearls, Tahitian pearls, and South Sea pearls.

 

  • Freshwater pearl
    Freshwater cultured pearls are grown in freshwater rivers and lakes. Although the traditional source of pearls has been saltwater oysters, mollusks which live in freshwater lakes and rivers are also capable of producing pearls. China has harvested freshwater pearls for many a millennia. The first record mentioning pearls in China was from 2206 BC. The United States was also a major source of freshwater pearls from the discovery of the New World up through the 19th century, when over-harvesting and increasing pollution significantly reduced the number of available pearl-forming mussels.
    Freshwater pearls are often somewhat less lustrous than their saltwater counterparts. However, they appear in a wide variety of shapes and colors, and they tend to be less expensive than saltwater pearls, making them quite popular. Freshwater pearls are also quite durable, resisting chipping, wear, and degeneration.
    In recent years the Chinese have been able to take the art of culturing freshwater pearls to new levels. In the last decade the quality of pearls produced have become so high that many pearls in the top percentage of a harvest are nearly indistinguishable of their saltwater relatives. Gone are the rice-shape seed pearls as they are now being replaced with round, lustrous pearls of sizes as large as 16mm, mimicking large South Sea pearls. This has created a renewed interest in freshwater pearls as an affordable alternative to the higher priced saltwater.




 
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