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A guide to pearl terms

At Absolute Pearls we want to help you to understand as much as possible about pearls so that you can make the very best choice when it comes to selecting pearl jewellery, whether it is for yourself or for someone else.

To help you decode the world of pearls, here is a run down of some of the words and phrases we use to describe our beautiful, natural gems…

Akoya pearls

Cultured Pearls from the Akoya saltwater oyster (Pinctada fucata). Originally from Japan, Akoya pearls are now farmed in China and other countries.

Baroque pearls

Irregular shaped pearls that come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes, which are neither round nor symmetrical. Baroque pearls are generally inexpensive, but can be sometimes be used as the centre piece for exquisite, and expensive, jewellery.

Bib

A pearl necklace made up of more than three concentric strands.

Biwa pearl

Cultured freshwater pearls grown in Lake Biwa in Japan. These are no longer produced, due to pollution. The term Biwa is often misused as a generic term for certain types of freshwater pearl.

Black-lip oyster

The oyster (Pinctada margaritifera), which produces the famous Tahitian black pearls. Found in the South Pacific around the islands of French Polynesia.

Black pearls

A natural coloured dark pearl grown in the black-lip oyster. The colour is black, light black/silvery or a dark grey, although other very dark colours such as the rarer peacock green are also referred to as black pearls.

Blemishes

Small surface marks, bumps, scars or irregularities that give a pearl its personality. The more widespread the blemishes, the lower the value of the pearl.

Blister pearls

A natural baroque pearl which occurs when a parasite intrudes through the outer shell of a mollusc. The mollusc secretes nacre over the irritant, cementing it to the shell itself..

Blue pearl

A dark-coloured pearl whose colour derives from foreign contaminants in the nacre, or between the nacre and the shell bead nucleus. Typically, blue pearls are naturally coloured dark Akoya pearls. They can be blue or other dark colours.

Choker length

A pearl necklace 14 - 16 inches (35 - 40 cm) in length.

Colour

One of the key factors in assessing pearls. While most pearls are predominantly white, they range from gold and yellow through to dark green and black.

Cultured pearls

Pearls formed by the insertion of a piece of mantle tissue, with or without a bead nucleus, into the host oyster or mussel. Cultured pearls grow in exactly the same way as natural pearls, and share the same stunning properties.

Dog collar

A choker length necklace formed from multiple strands.

Freshwater pearls

Pearls which grow in mussels in freshwater rivers and lakes.

Gold-lipped oyster

The Pinctada Maxima oyster, found in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, which produces beautiful light yellowish or golden pearls.

Graduated necklace

A pearl necklace which starts with small pearls at the ends and gradually getting bigger towards the largest pearl in the middle. (cf. uniform necklace)

Half and three-quarter pearls

Whole pearls that have had a section cut away to remove blemishes.

Imitation pearls

Fake gems manufactured to look like natural or cultured pearls. Usually consisting of a glass or plastic bead coated with fish scales or artificial lacquer.

Iridescence

The optical effect, similar to oil on water, which creates patterns of coloured light on the surface of a pearl. Iridescence may be multi-coloured, like a rainbow, or a subtle combination of colours such as pink, blue, green, and silver.

Keshi pearls

Small roundish pearls formed naturally in the soft tissue of the mollusc during the cultivation process as a result of injury or debris introduced accidentally during the culturing process.

Knotting

The process of placing small knots between each pearl on a necklace to prevent the loss of all the pearls if the silk thread breaks. Knots also reduce wear from pearls rubbing together.

Lustre

The unique shine on the surface of a pearl created by the reflection and refraction of light in the multiple layers of nacre. Lustre is what makes pearls so beautiful and mesmerising and is one of the most important factors when valuing a pearl.

Mabe pearls

A type of cultured half pearl, formed by cementing a half-bead to the inner shell of the mollusc, which then gets covered in nacre. When the shell is cut away, the exposed bead is removed and the remaining hole filled and backed with mother-of-pearl. Mabe pearls are used in closed-back settings and are also know as half-pearls or cultured blister pearls.

Mantle

The soft tissue in a mollusc that secretes nacre. Mantle tissue taken from another mollusc is used to nucleate and stimulate pearl formation in cultured pearls.

Mallorca / Majorca Pearls

A well-known type of imitation pearls that are popular in the USA. Many people believe them to be real pearls but they are merely high quality imitations.

Matinee length

A pearl necklace 20 - 26 inches (50 - 66 cm) long.

Mikimoto pearls

The leading pearl company founded by the pioneer of cultured pearl production, Kokichi Mikimoto.

Mollusc

The soft bodied shellfish that produce pearls. Mussels are the mollusc used for culturing freshwater pearls, while oysters are used for saltwater pearls.

Mother-of-pearl

The smooth, iridescent lining on the interior of mollusc shells, which is made from the same substance (nacre) as pearls. It is often used to make buttons.

Nacre (pron. ‘NAY-ker’)

The smooth, iridescent substance secreted by the mantle of certain molluscs to protect themselves from irritants. When an irritant is coated in nacre, a pearl is formed.

Natural pearls

Pearls which are formed in the wild, in response to an irritant or parasite, without any assistance from man. Until the discovery of pearl culturing, all pearls were natural.

Near round pearls

Pearls which are very close to being round in shape. These will be slightly rounder than ‘off-round’ pearls.

Non-nucleated pearls

Freshwater pearls created without a bead nucleus. These pearls are stimulate by mantle tissue which disappears as the pearl is formed. This means that freshwater pearls are solid nacre.

Nucleated pearls

Saltwater pearls created by implanting a bead nucleus along with the mantle tissue. This bead produces a pearl with a thin layer of nacre.

Off-round pearls

Pearls with a slightly flattened or slightly oval shape.

Opera length

A pearl necklace 28 - 36 inches (70 - 90 cm) in length.

Orient

Another name for the lustre or iridescence seen on the surface of pearls.

Oriental pearls

Natural pearls once found in the waters of the Persian Gulf. Few Oriental pearls are found these days due to pollution.

Pearl

Strictly speaking, the word pearl refers to natural pearls only, while farmed pearls should be referred to as ‘cultured pearls’. In practice, since 95% of pearls are now cultured, the term has come to mean either natural or cultured pearls.

Princess length

A pearl necklace 16 - 20 inches (40 - 50 cm) in length.

Rope length

A pearl necklace 40inches (100cm)

Round pearls

Pearls which are perfectly round in shape. Since pearls grow naturally, perfectly round pearls are quite rare, even if they have been seeded with a round bead nucleus. Perfectly round pearls are sought after and highly valued.

Semi-baroque pearls

Pearls which are neither round, nor completely irregular. Semi-baroque shapes include pear, drop, button and egg shapes.

Shape

A key factor in assessing the value of a pearl. Pearls are divided into four major shape categories: round, off-round, semi-baroque and baroque.

Silver-lip oyster

A variety of the Pinctada Maxima oyster found in Northern Australia which produces large white or silvery pearls.

South Sea cultured pearls

Saltwater cultured pearls from a wide region stretching from Thailand, Burma, Indonesia and Philippines in the west, through Northern Australia to the South Pacific to the French Polynesia and Tahiti. South Sea pearls are generally larger and more expensive than other saltwater pearls.

Strand of pearls

When pearls are initially sorted, they are made into strands of pearls, usually around 16 inches long. (cf. string of pearls)

String of pearls

Once pearls have been incorporated into jewellery, such as pearl necklaces, they are sometimes referred to as a string of pearls. (cf strand of pearls)

Torsade

Multiple strings of pearls twisted around each other. This is a popular way to wear freshwater pearl necklaces.

Uniform necklace

Necklace featuring pearls of approximately equal size (cf. graduated necklace).