What a Shape!

June 1998

For Your Staff:Selling Pearls

What a Shape!

A cultured pearl's shape plays a key role in assessing its value and quality


Close your eyes and describe a pearl. That's what consumers were asked to do in a recent poll by the Cultured Pearl Information Center.

"Round" was the first thing that popped into the minds of the vast majority. That's not surprising. In fact, throughout history we've always associated "pearl" with "round." But before the invention of cultured pearls, natural pearls were almost always anything but perfectly round.

Perhaps this obsession with spherical perfection can be blamed on the media - paintings, that is. When you stroll the galleries of major museums, you find many paintings done after the 1400s depicting notables adorned in pearl jewelry. The pearls are almost always round, because artists from the early Gothic to Impressionist periods tried to optimize the character of their subjects. Remember that before the 1930s, pearls were reserved for the rich and famous, therefore, artists took great care to glorify any piece of clothing or jewelry worn by their subjects.

There were round natural pearls available before the advent of spherical pearl cultivation in 1907, of course. But finding one was uncommon. In those days, a jeweler needed several months to several decades to find enough natural pearls of the same color to create a necklace.

Today, round pearls are considered the norm, and deviations from this norm tend to be treated without the same reverence and appreciation reserved for their symmetrical counterparts.

Round About
Many conditions can affect the shape of a pearl. Though exactly how an oyster secretes nacre onto an irritant or nucleus to form a pearl is still somewhat of a mystery, shape generally can be attributed to the manner in which this occurs.

The best conditions for growing a reasonably round pearl exist when the creature is healthy and internally passive. Remember a pearl starts to form when a piece of foreign matter lodges in the body of an oyster. This nucleus is a constant source of irritation, and the oyster is almost always trying to eject it.

As the nucleus shifts inside the oyster during this struggle, nacre crystals may begin to form in an irregular pattern around the nucleus, creating concentrations of the lustrous material in certain spots. Over time, these concentrations or bumps of nacre grow larger. At harvest time, the pearl is no longer round.

However, if the oyster is at relative peace with the intruder and there's less internal activity, the likelihood of an even nacre coating and a round pearl is far greater.

In Shape
Cultured pearls always begin their formation with a perfectly round nucleus inserted into an oyster's body. But after many months and years of growth, they can end up in a variety of shapes.

These shapes range in descending order of value from round to semi-round, from off-round to oval and from drop to baroque. It's important to understand that in pearl industry lingo, generally the shapes from round to drop are pretty symmetrical, while anything baroque denotes a pearl that is completely asymmetrical or free-form. The aforementioned shapes usually occur in Japanese akoya cultured pearls as well as Tahitian, South Sea and freshwater pearls.

With Tahitian and South Sea pearls, we add another series of shapes: circle or ringed pearls and button-shaped pearls. The former are pearls that may be round to drop-shaped that contain a series of concave circles or rings around the body of the pearl. The latter can best be described as pearls that are round yet have an almost flat side to one end, resembling a mabe pearl or button.

Freshwater pearls also have several different categories of shapes in addition to rounds and baroques. They are stick shapes, which tend to be elongated and flat; angel winged (self- explanatory); and/or button shaped, where the pearl resembles a true button or pancake-like shape.

Shape and Value
In terms of quality, shape doesn't matter all that much. But when it comes down to price or value, which is a quantitative assessment, round pearls fetch the highest prices because they are the hardest to grow. But don't be completely fooled by roundness. Keep in mind the nucleus inserted into an oyster to start the growing process is always perfectly round. Usually thin-skinned pearls or pearls with very thin nacre are round because they haven't been inside an oyster long enough to develop enough nacre to form irregular crystal concentrations.

As far as appreciation values are concerned, though almost everyone desires a round pearl, semiround or slightly off-round pearls can be a way for price-conscious consumers to achieve a round pearl look (especially at a viewing distance of greater than two feet) at a significantly lower price.

Baroque pearls also are an ideal jewelry add-on for the woman who already owns a strand of round pearls and wants a unique "fashion" look.

And in certain jewelry categories - such as earrings, rings and pins - drop, button and baroque pearls bring out the creative artistry in many of today's top designers.

 Pearl Shapes

Round, Semiround, Off-Round & Drop Pearls Usually pretty symmetrical
(Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, freshwater)
Baroque Pearls Assymetrical, free-form
(Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, freshwater)
Circle or Ringed Pearls  Concave circles or rings on the body or a round, semiround, off-round or drop pearl (typically Tahitian, South Sea) 
Button Pearls  Round with an almost float side to one end - resembling a mabe pearl (Tahitian, South Sea, freshwater)
Stick  Elongated and flat (freshwater) 
Angel-Winged  Self-descriptive (freshwater)

Here are examples of a range of cultured pearl shapes. The pearl at left is round, followed by off-round, drop (circled or ringed), semi-baroque and baroque.

This is the third in a series of articles on how to determine pearl quality. Previous articles examined surface quality (April 1998, p. 109) and luster (March 1998, p. 106)

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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