UNLIKE the gems that have been so far considered, the pearl is not a mineral, but is of organic
origin, that is, it is the product of a living organism. There are two principal types of molluscs
which yield true pearls in commercial quantities. The best known of the first type is the so-called
pearl oyster (Meleagrina margaritifera). The pearl mussel of fresh water streams is of the second
type (Unio margaritifera). Other species of molluscs having pearly linings to their shells may
produce pearls, but most of the pearls of commerce come from one or the other of the two
Structure of Pearl. The structure and material of the true pearl must be first understood in
order to understand the underlying reasons for the remarkable beauty of this gem. Pearls are
composed partly of the mineral substance calcium carbonate (chemically the same as marble)
and partly of a tough, horny substance of organic nature called conchiolin. The shell of the pearl-
bearing mollusc is also composed of these two substances. Calcium carbonate may crystallize in
either of two forms, calcite or aragonite. In marble we have calcite. In the outer portions of the
shell of the pearl oyster the calcium carbonate is in the form of calcite, but in the inner nacreous
lining and in the pearl itself the mineral is present as aragonite. This is deposited by the mollusc
in very thin crystalline layers in the horny layers of conchiolin, so that the lining of the shell is
built of approximately parallel layers of mineral and of animal substance. In the normal shell this
is all that takes place, but in the case of a mollusc whose interior is invaded by any small source
of irritation, such as a borer, or a grain of sand, or other bit of foreign material, a process of
alternate deposit of conchiolin and of aragonite goes on upon the invading matter, thus forming a
The pearl is built in layers like an onion. In shape it may be spherical, or pear-shaped, or button-
shaped or of any less regular shape than these. The regular shapes are more highly valued. The
spherical shape is of greatest value, other things being equal. Next comes the drop or pear shape,
then the button shape, and after these the host of irregular shapes known to the jeweler as
"baroques." The river man who gathers mussels calls these odd-shaped pearls "slugs."
Let us now attempt to understand how the beautiful luster and iridescence of the pearl are related
to the layer-like structure of the gem. In the first place, it should be understood that both
conchiolin and aragonite are translucent, that is, they pass light to a certain extent. The layers
being exceedingly thin, light can penetrate a considerable number of them if not otherwise
deflected from its course. We thus obtain reflections not merely from the outer surface of a pearl,
but from layer after layer within the gem and all these reflections reach the eye in a blended
reflection of great beauty. The luster of a pearl is then not purely a surface luster in the usual
sense of that term, but it is a luster due to many superposed surfaces. It is so different from other
types of luster that we describe it merely as pearly luster even though we find it in some other
material, as, for example in certain sapphires, in which it is due to a similar layer-like
arrangement of structure.
Orient. The fineness of the luster of a pearl, or as is said in the trade, the orient, depends upon
the number of layers that take part in the reflection, and this number in turn depends upon the
translucency of the material and the thinness of the layers. Very fine pearls usually have very
many, very thin layers taking part in the reflection. The degree of translucency, considered
apart, is sometimes called the "water" of the pearl.
In addition to their beautiful luster, many pearls display iridescence, and this is due in part, as in
the case of the pearly lining of the shell (mother of pearl) to overlapping of successive layers,
like the overlapping of shingles on a roof. This gives rise to a lined surface, much like the
diffraction grating of the physicist, which is made by ruling a glass plate with thousands of
parallel lines to the inch. Such a grating produces wonderful spectra, in which the rainbow colors
are widely separated and very vivid. The principal on which this separation of light depends is
known as diffraction and cannot be explained here, but a similar effect takes place when light
falls on the naturally ruled surface of a pearl and helps produce the play of colors known as
iridescence. The thin layers themselves also help to produce the iridescence by interference of
light much as in the case of the opal, which has already been discussed.
Color. Having explained the cause of the orient and water of pearls, the color must next be
considered. Pearls may be had of almost any color, but the majority of fine pearls are white, or
nearly so. The fine Oriental pearls frequently have a creamy tint. Among fresh water pearls the
creamy tint is less often seen, but fine pink tints occur. Occasionally a black pearl is found and
on account of its rarity commands a price nearly as great as that obtainable for a white pearl of
similar size and quality.
The value of pearls depends upon several different factors and it is far from an easy matter to
estimate the value of a fine specimen. It is much easier to grade and estimate the value of
diamonds than to do the same for pearls, and it is only by long and intimate acquaintance with
the pearls themselves that one can hope to become expert in deciding values. There are,
however, several general factors that govern the value of pearls. Chief among these are: 1,
Orient; 2, Color; 3, Texture or Skin; 4, Shape and Size.
Factors Governing the Value of Pearls. Taking up each of these factors in turn, it may be said
of the first that unless a pearl has that fine keen luster known as a fine orient, it is of but limited
value. No matter what the size, or how perfect the shape, it is nothing, if dead and lusterless. To
have great value the gem must gleam with that soft but lively luster peculiar to fine specimens of
pearl. With variations in orient go wide variations in value.
As to color, the choicest pearls are pure white or delicate rose pink or creamy white. Pearls in
these shades can be had in numbers and these colors are what might be called regular colors.
Fancy-colored pearls have peculiar and irregular values, depending a good deal upon rarity and
upon the obtaining of a customer for an odd color. Fine pink and fine black pearls are examples
of the type that is meant here.
To be very valuable a pearl must have a smooth even skin, that is, the texture of its surface must
be even and regular. It must not have pits or scratches or wrinkles, or little raised spots upon it,
or any cracks in it. In connection with this topic of "skin," it may be mentioned that it is
sometimes true that a pearl of bad skin or of poor luster may be improved markedly by "peeling"
it, as the process is called. As was said above, a pearl is built in layers much like an onion, and it
can often be peeled, that is, one or more layers can be removed, thus exposing fresh layers
beneath, whose texture and luster may be better than those of the original outside layer.
"Peeling" a Pearl. Possibly an anecdote of an actual case may serve best to explain the method
by which "peeling" is sometimes accomplished. The writer was once at Vincennes, Ind., on
business, and there became acquainted with a pearl buyer who was stopping at that place to buy
fresh water pearls and "slugs" from the rivermen who gather the mussels for the sake of
their shells. The latter are made into "pearl" buttons for clothing. It happened that the pearl buyer
had accumulated some twenty-eight ounces of slugs and a number of pearls and was leaving on
the same train with the author, who shared his seat with him. While we were looking over the
slugs together the pearl buyer put his hand in his pocket and drew out a five-dollar bill which he
unrolled, exposing a pearl of about six grains, well shaped, but of rather dead luster. Remarking
that he had paid but $4 for it and that he had rolled it up in the bill for safe keeping until he got
time to peel it, he took out a small penknife, opened one of the blades, put a couple of kid glove
finger tips on the thumb and first finger of his left hand and proceeded to peel the pearl on the
moving train. Holding his two hands together to steady them, he pressed the edge of his knife
blade against the pearl until the harder steel had penetrated straight down through one
layer. Then with a flaking, lateral motion he flaked off a part of the outer skin. Bit by bit all of
the outer layer was flaked off, and that, too, without appreciably scratching the next layer, so
great was the worker's skill. When the pearl was completely peeled it was gently rubbed with
three grades of polishing paper, each finer than the previous one, and then the writer was
allowed to examine it. The appearance had been much improved, although it was not of
extremely fine quality even when peeled. Under a high power magnifier scarcely a trace of the
peeling could be seen. The value of the $4 pearl had been raised to at least $100 and not many
minutes had been required for the change. A slower and more laborious, but safer, process of
"peeling" a pearl, consists in gently rubbing the surface with a very fine, rather soft, abrasive
powder until all of the outer skin has been thus worn away.
Of course, in many such cases no better skin than the outer one could be found and
disappointment would result from the peeling of such a pearl. It should be added that it will not
do to try to peel a part of a pearl in order to remove an excrescence, for then one would
inevitably cut across the layers, exposing their edges, and such a surface looks, when polished,
much like a pearl button, but not like a pearl.
In this connection may be mentioned the widespread belief on the part of the public that the
concretions found in the common edible oyster can be polished by a lapidary, as a rough
precious stone can be improved by the latter, and that a fine pearl will result. It is frequently
necessary for jewelers to whom such "pearls" are brought, to undeceive the person bringing them
and to tell him that only those molluscs that have a beautiful pearly lining to their shells are
capable of producing true pearls and that the latter require no assistance from the lapidary.
Shape. To return to the topic of factors governing the value of pearls, the shape of the pearl
makes a vast difference in the value. Perfectly spherical pearls are most highly valued and
closely following come those of drop or pear shape, as this shape lends itself nicely to the
making of pendants. Oval or egg-shaped pearls are also good. After these come the button
shapes, in which one side is flattened. Pearls of irregular shape are much less highly valued. The
irregular-shaped pearls are called baroque pearls in the trade. The rivermen engaged in the fresh
water pearl fishery call them slugs. Some of the more regular of these are called "nuggets."
Others are termed "spikes" because of their pointed shape, and still others are called "wing"
pearls on account of their resemblance to a bird's wing. Most of the baroques are too irregular in
shape to have any special name applying to their form.
Weight. After orient, color, skin, and shape have been considered, size or weight finally
determines the value. Pearls are sold by an arbitrary unit of weight known as the pearl
grain. It is not equal to the grain avoirdupois, but is one fourth of a diamond carat. As the new
metric carat is one fifth of a gram and as there are 15.43 avoirdupois grains in a gram, it is seen
at once that there are but 3.08 real grains in a carat rather than four. Thus the pearl grain is
slightly lighter than the avoirdupois grain.
Since large, fine pearls are exceedingly rare, the value mounts with size much more rapidly than
is the case with any other gem; in fact, the value increases as the square of the weight. For
example, let us consider two pearls, one of one grain weight, the other of two grains, and both of
the same grade as to quality. If the smaller is worth say $2 per grain, then the larger is worth
2 × 2 (the square of the weight) times $2 (the price per grain base, as it is called in the trade),
which totals $8. A four-grain pearl of this grade would be worth 4 × 4 × $2 = $32, etc. Thus it is
seen that the price increases very rapidly with increase in weight.
Price "Per Grain Base." Some of the lower grades of pearls in small sizes are sold by the grain
straight, that is, the price per grain is merely multiplied by the weight in grains to get the value,
just as the price per carat would be multiplied by the number of carats to get the value of a
diamond. This method of figuring the value of pearls is used only for the cheaper grades and
small sizes, however, and the method first explained, the calculation per grain base, is the one in
universal use for fine gems. Very fine exceptional gems may be sold at a large price for the
piece, regardless of the weight.
It is interesting to note in this connection that Tavernier, the French gem merchant of the
seventeenth century, tells us that in his day the price of large diamonds was calculated by a
method similar to that which we now use for pearls, that is, the weight in carats was squared and
the product multiplied by the price per carat. Such a method would give far too high a price
for diamonds to-day.
The High Price of Fine Pearls. This suggests the thought that pearls of fine quality and great
size are the most costly of all gems to-day and yet there seems to be no halting in the demand for
them. In fact, America is only just beginning to get interested in pearls and is coming to esteem
them as they have long been esteemed in the East and in Europe. Those who have thought that
the advance in the prices of diamonds in recent years will soon put them at prohibitive rates
should consider the enormous prices that have been obtained and are being obtained for fine
In order to facilitate the calculating of prices of pearls, tables have been computed and published
giving the values of pearls of all sizes at different prices per grain base, and several times these
tables have been outgrown, and new ones, running to higher values, have been made. The
present tables run to $50 per grain base.
There is much justification for the high prices demanded and paid for large and fine pearls. Such
gems are really exceedingly scarce. Those who, as boys, have opened hundreds of river mussels
only to find a very few small, badly misshapen "slugs" will realize that it is only one mollusc in
a very large number that contains a fine pearl. Moreover, like the bison and the wild pigeon, the
pearl-bearing molluscs may be greatly diminished in numbers or even exterminated by the greed
of man and his fearfully destructive methods of harvesting nature's productions. In fact, the
fisheries have been dwindling in yield for some time, and most of the fine pearls that are
marketed are old pearls, already drilled, from the treasuries of Eastern potentates, who have been
forced by necessity to accept the high prices offered by the West for part of their treasures. In
India, pearls have long been acceptable collateral for loans, and many fine gems have come on
the market after failure of the owners to repay such loans.
Having considered the factors bearing on the value of pearls, we will next consider briefly their
physical properties. The specific gravity is less definite than with minerals and varies between
2.65 and 2.70. It may be even higher for pink pearls.
Physical Properties. In hardness pearls also vary, ranging between 31⁄2 and 4 on Mohs's scale.
They are thus very soft and easily worn or scratched by hard usage. A case showing the rather
rapid wearing away of pearls recently came to the attention of the writer. A pendant in the shape
of a Latin cross had been made of round pearls which had been drilled and strung on two slender
gold rods to form the cross. The pearls were free to rotate on the wires. After a period of some
twenty or more years of wear the pearls had all become distinctly cylindrical in shape, the
rubbing against the garments over which the pendant had been worn having been sufficient to
grind away the soft material to that extent. The luster was still good, the pearls having
virtually been "peeled" very slowly by abrasion.
Care of Pearls. This example suggests the great care that should be taken by owners of fine
pearls to prevent undue rubbing or wear of these valuable but not extremely durable gems. They
should be carefully wiped after being worn to remove dust and then put away in a tightly closed
Pearls should never be allowed to come in contact with any acid, not even weak acids like
lemonade, or punch or vinegar, as, being largely calcium carbonate they are very easily acted
upon by acids, and a mere touch with an acid might ruin the surface luster. Being partly organic
in nature, pearls are not everlasting, but must eventually decay, as is shown by the powdery
condition of very old pearls that have been found with mummies or in ancient ruins. The organic
matter has yielded to bacterial attack and decayed, leaving only the powdery mineral matter
behind. As heat and moisture are the conditions most conducive to the growth of bacteria,
and hence to decay, it would follow that fine pearls should be kept in a dry cool place when not