Come to the Circus

September 1998

Gemstones & Pearls:Gemology

Come to the Circus

With her reliable set of "performers," Gina Latendresse offers retailers an education in cultured pearl anatomy

Pearls, cultured and the very rare naturals, are compelling gems, sure to arrest your customers' visual senses. There's something about their velvety yet shimmering appearance that begs for the human touch.

Once enjoyed only by kings, sheiks or maharajah, pearls became more democratic after the discovery they could be cultivated in the very mollusks that once produced them naturally.

Today, almost all pearls are cultured. But there are lot of misconceptions about a cultured pearl's anatomy, says Gina Latendresse, president of American Pearl Co., Nashville, TN, which is known for producing superb Tennessee River cultured freshwater pearls. To answer her own questions about the anatomy of pearls, Latendresse assembled a formidable collection of natural and cultured saltwater, freshwater, mabé, blister and keshi pearls, as well as cross-sections of the various types. She began when she was child and still adds to the collection to depict advances in pearl culturing and enhancement.

She affectionately calls the collection her "cultured pearl circus," and is happy to demonstrate and explain its many "performers" to anyone interested in knowing what cultured pearls are about. Her aim is to educate, which she feels will improve their popularity and sales potential.

Latendresse recently allowed Professional Jewelerto photograph some of her circus members. Here's how she describes them.

American cultured "coin" pearl
"This cross section of a cultured pearl exhibits very thick nacre on the shell nucleus. Nacre does not coat evenly: one side is 2+mm thick, the other is 1+mm.

No enhancements or treatments have been used." [Nacre refers to the layers of an organic substance a mollusk exudes to coat irritants that invade its shell. This substance gives pearls their soft appearance and luster. The thicker the nacre, the better the pearl.]

American cultured pearls intact
"Notice the color tone differences and beautiful luster. No enhancements or treatments have been used." [See the For Your Staff section in this issue for a description of common cultured pearl enhancements.]




Adult and baby snail-type mollusks
"These are possible natural irritants that cause pearls to form; they are exaggerated sizes. The microscopic larvae of these mollusks are theorized to be the possible irritant."






American natural pearls
"Note the growth rings in the dissection. This is similar to tree ring growth. The dark layers could be conchiolin or caused by dirty water from floods or rain. These pearls formed naturally in the Tennessee River. No enhancements or treatments have been used." [Conchiolin is an organic substance that cements calcite and aragonite in pearls and shells.]

"Mabé pearls," broken in half
"Notice the paint on the interior of the product. Also the product is filled with a kind of hard plastic. There's no evidence of a shell bead [nucleus], only that it's an assembled product. I've dissected several "mabé" pearls and found there are many ways to do this. The correct terminology for this product should be "mabé assembled pearl." The word "cultured" should be included, but where?"


Japanese cultured pearl
"All Japanese pearls are bleached, tint-dyed and enhanced to achieve the beautiful matching colors. The importance of this dissection is the very thin nacre coating – less than 0.5mm thick. In buying pearls, be aware nacre thickness affects durability and longevity. Retailers and consumers must be allowed to make an educated choice whether to buy a product that will become a family heirloom or one that lasts just a few years. Every cultured pearl has a place in our market – no matter how low the quality – because price is a big factor for many buyers. However, quality must be explained in terms of durability and longevity."

American natural pearls in the shape of wooly mammoths
"These pearls have not been carved or enhanced. Natural pearls are rarely rounded; symmetrical shapes with nice color, luster and blemish-free surfaces are considered very valuable. Baroque or asymmetrical pearls, meanwhile, have been used in many different designs such as mermaid's tails, fish and feathers."





Cultured "corn" and "button" pearls
from China
"This shows the appearance of a possibly natural pearl. The white pearls are most likely bleached and tint-dyed, but the pink is naturally colored. The mother mollusk is most likely pink or very colorful. Various species in the U.S. are naturally pink, purple or lavender, though many are on the endangered species list." [There's no way to tell for sure whether a pearl has been bleached. But one tell-tale sign of tint-dyeing is color concentrations in the nacre near the drill hole.)


All photos by Robert Weldon; pearls courtesy of American Pearl Co.

Copyright © 1998 by Bond Communications.


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