Pearls of the Orient

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When I was in grade school, I remember very clearly that in our history classes would always begin by explaining why the Philippines was called the “Pearl of the Orient.” Of course there were several other reasons as to why the country was nicknamed as such, but for many today, one of the attractions comes from the pearls — in a very literal sense.

A stall at the Pearl Market in at Greenhills shopping Center in Manila. Image credit Jett Brittnell.

Today in the Philippines you can buy pearls of all shapes, color, sizes and varieties at local markets. With such a tremendous amount of variety to choose from, one can get easily mesmerized and overwhelmed by the types of pearl available on the market today. I thought I’d share some information on pearls for those who might be interested in these gems of the sea.

Freshwater and Saltwater Pearls

Pearls are naturally occurring gems that are a product of mollusks such as oysters and mussels. Typically, pearls found in the saltwater seas are obtained from pearl oysters, and freshwater pearls from pearl mussels.

Pearl being harvested from a pearl oyster. Image from Wikimedia commons.

The main difference between freshwater and sea pearls are the mollusk they come from, and the habitat where it lives. When an irritant to the oyster or clam enters the shells, it forms layers of nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl to fight the irritation, and thus a pearl is formed.

Cultured and Natural Pearls

Thanks to modern technology, freshwater pearls can be cultivated to form different shapes, sizes, and colors for jewelry. Pearls made using human intervention are known as cultured pearls, in contrast with natural pearls, which are found completely formed inside the mollusk. Another difference between cultured pearls and natural pearls is their mineral composition. While cultured pearls retain their value as precious gems, they contain less of the mother-of-pearl mineral. Natural pearls are usually composed of 100% of the mineral, making them rarer and more expensive.

Freshwater pearls. Image credit:

Some of the most valuable pearls available today are known as South Sea Pearls, which are native to and only found in the seas of southeast Asia and the surrounding areas, including some of the islands of the Philippines. These natural pearls are harvested from wild south sea pearl oysters and are known for their size and lustre.

Natural South Sea Pearls inside the oysters. Image credit

Pearl jewelry today is becoming more creative thanks to the technology available today. Freshwater pearls can now be cultivated and injected with color to form interesting shapes and sizes. These square pearls were colored and cut with texture to give an interesting an contemporary twist to a simple bracelet design.

Image by Renee Alfonso

For some however the natural beauty of pure, white pearls will always embody the essence of these precious gems. Simple pearl strands such as these will stand the test of time and can become great heirlooms.

Image by Renee Alfonso

Whatever their shape or form, pearls are unique gemstones that showcase the beauty of both nature and human ingenuity. It’ll be interesting and exciting to see what pearl farmers and jewelers come up with in the future!

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