Skip to content

Macklowe Gallery's Definitive Guide To Pearls

Pearls, throughout history, have long been highly-prized and sought after gems. Countless references to pearls can be found amongst religious texts and mythologies, with their warm inner glow and shimmering iridescence. It is the oldest known gem, and for centuries, was considered to be the most valuable of all the gemstones. Pearls have a timeless appeal and enduring and worldwide popularity. They are believed to be a symbol of clarity, virtue and conviction, and some believe that the first people to collect or wear pearls might have been an ancient fish-eating tribe, likely somewhere along the coast of India, who may have discovered pearls while opening up oysters for food. Until the early 1900s, natural pearls were accessible only to the massively wealthy and the social elite; after this time, pearl farming, creating cultured pearls through physical manipulation of the oysters’ shells, made pearls more widely available and more affordable for all. 

Since ancient times, the pearl has been a symbol of unblemished perfection, a symbol of the moon, believed to have magical powers. Ancient Egyptians of high stature prized pearls so much that they were buried in them, and according to legend, Cleopatra even dissolved a single pearl in a glass of wine and drank it, winning a wager with Mark Antony that she could consume the wealth of an entire nation in just one meal. Throughout history, there have been many rules of who could and could not wear pearls: The rules of the Byzantine empire dictated that only the emperor was allowed to wear pearls; a number of European countries actually passed laws at the time forbidding anyone but nobility to wear them, and Julius Caesar barred women below a certain rank from wearing any type of pearls. 

Ancient Chinese civilizations believed that wearing pearls protected a person from fire and dragons, and other cultures have associated them with chastity and modesty. In ancient Rome, pearls were also considered to be the ultimate symbol of wealth and social standing. At the peak of the Roman Empire, when the desire for pearls reached its height, the Roman general Vitellius sold one of his mother’s pearl earrings and was able to use the money to finance an entire military campaign. The Greeks, meanwhile, held the pearl in high esteem for its unrivaled beauty, and its association with love and marriage. An old Arab legend speaks of how pearls were formed when dew drops filled with moonlight fell into the ocean, swallowed by oysters. When 13th century explorer Marco Polo visited Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan he reportedly presented him with the stunning Arco Valley Pearl, which weighs in at 575 carats and is more than three inches long (the pearl was auctioned off in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and its whereabouts are unknown). During the Dark Ages, women and maidens of nobility would wear delicate pearl necklaces, as gallant knights wore them into battle, believing that the magic of their lustrous nature would protect them from harm. In Victorian England small seed pearls were often used in mourning jewelry to symbolize tears.

The value of a pearl necklace was once considered higher than any other piece of jewelry in the world. In 1916, famed French jeweler Jacques Cartier bought the house's landmark New York store on Fifth Avenue by trading two pearl necklaces for the valuable property. A famously beautiful pearl called La Peregrina was given by Prince Phillip II of Spain to his bride Mary during the 16th century. La Peregrina, a white, pear-shaped saltwater pearl, had a series of royal owners until the 1960s, when actor Richard Burton gave it to his jewelry-obsessed wife Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor had a necklace of pearls and rubies designed to showcase La Peregrina. Although famous for singing that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend,” one of Marilyn Monroe’s most treasured pieces of jewelry was a simple sixteen-inch string of pearls given to her by Joe DiMaggio during their honeymoon in Japan. Pearls were always a favorite accessory of 20th century style icon Grace Kelly, both during her screen star days and once she became Princess Grace of Monaco. Her husband Prince Rainier gave her a luxurious pearl-and-diamond jewelry set that she wore frequently.

By the early 1900s, pearls became within grasp thanks to Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a noodle maker, who worked to develop a strategy that enticed oysters to produce pearls on demand. It was this sole discovery that brought about the beginning of oyster farming for cultured pearls. Pearl culturing is the process of creating an environment that encourages natural oysters to yield pearls. The pearl culturing technique itself consists of implanting a piece of an oyster’s mantle tissue, a small nucleus, into the silky wall lining of another living oyster. The oyster’s reaction to this implanted tissue is to soothe the irritant by releasing a milky substance, known as nacre. Layer upon layer, the nacre builds over the course of several years, to become a beautiful pearl. 

All pearls, whether natural or cultured, originate in shelled mollusks, which includes over a hundred thousand species, but only a few varieties can create gem-quality pieces. Naturally occurring, pearls are formed when a foreign body is introduced into the mollusk and calcium carbonate is secreted, which crystallize into aragonite (or nacre), bound together by conchiolin. The nacre envelopes the foreign body, layer by layer over years, eventually forming a pearl. The orthorhombic aragonite crystals arrange themselves into an overlapping pattern held together by conchiolin, and when light hits the surface and shines through the layers of this nacre, that is when the viewer can perceive the iridescence so prized in pearls.  

Pearls are generally judged by a number of different factors, including luster, size, shape, flaws, and color. Unlike with diamonds, however, there is no standardized grading system for pearls, so typically when pearls go to market, they are assigned a “grade” based on their nacre thickness, from AAA to A. The system is based on flawlessness, so the score of AAA is the most flawless, lustrous pearl, while the score of A is the least desirable, with many flaws and low luster. This scale, however, tends to be very subjective, and even misleading. Among all the attributes that a pearl can have, the luster is arguably the most important differentiator of pearl quality in jewelry, as well as how large it is. Large, perfectly round, naturally occurring pearls are rare and highly-valued. All pearls can come in a range of colors, including white, black, pink, blue, champagne, green, and purple. The colored pearls can take years to collect enough of the same size and shade in order to complete a full stringed necklace. Every pearl is unique in its color, luster, size, and shape. The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously in the wild, but are extremely rare. These wild pearls are referred to as natural pearls. Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold.

Here at Macklowe Gallery, we are pleased to be able to offer a number of vintage and antique pieces of fine jewelry featuring a wide variety of pearls, including cultured, natural, saltwater, freshwater, and more. Discover the unique history and benefits of each here: 


The growth of cultured pearls is one that always requires human intervention and care, grown in pearl farms. The mollusks are raised until they are old enough to accept a nucleus, and then, through a delicate, surgical-like procedure, a technician implants a bean nucleus, and then the mollusk is returned to the water and cared for. Although cultured pearls are generally more uniform in shape and size compared to natural pearls, because they are still formed in nature, even through human intervention, not all the pearls formed are high quality. In fact, frequently over ten thousand pearls can be sorted before a single sixteen inch strand of matched pearls can be assembled. Cultured pearls can be produced in saltwater and in freshwater, with different types of mollusks producing different looking pearls, creating a tremendous range in sizes, colors, shapes, and luster. Cultured pearls are currently farmed in many different parts of the world, including China, Australia, Indonesia, the French Polynesia, Japan, and Thailand. Because of their wide variety, prices for cultured pearls differ dramatically; freshwater pearls are almost always less expensive than saltwater pearls, and pearls that are cultured for longer periods of time will also generally be more costly. 


Natural pearls are the nomenclature for pearls that are formed in the wild, in the mantle tissues of certain mollusks, usually around a microscopic irritant, without human interference or help of any kind. Natural pearls, while extremely rare, and unfortunately, today, most have already been harvested. They are quite expensive due to the rarity, with natural pearling no longer being commonplace, cultured pearls are far more popular and more readily available in the marketplace. Also sometimes referred to as “fine,” or “wild” pearls, they are formed as a biological defense mechanism of the mollusk, producing the nacre to seal the irritant inside the shell and prevent the external interference from causing internal harm. 


Saltwater pearls come from oysters and mussels in any body of saltwater, including oceans, seas, gulfs, and bays. Typically, saltwater pearls are made by transplanting a graft of the saltwater shell into the mantle of gonad of the oyster, creating a round shape that is white or cream in color (with exceptions). They are usually high quality and more expensive than freshwater pearls, including the Akoya pearls, grown in Japanese and Chinese waters; the South Sea pearls, which are the largest of all pearls, found in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines; and the Tahitian pearls, which are found in several islands of French Polynesia, including Tahiti, and are more frequently colored, in grays, blues, greens, and purples. Saltwater pearls take longer to cultivate, having a higher luster than other pearls, but also less durable. Saltwater pearls are generally more expensive, as the saltwater mollusks can only produce one pearl at a time, whereas freshwater oysters can produce up to thirty pearls at a time.


Often called the “fashion-forward” pearl, freshwater pearls are found in mollusks that reside within rivers, lakes, and ponds. Unlike saltwater cultured pearls, freshwater cultured pearls do not normally contain bead nuclei and therefore most are made of entirely solid nacre.  They are generally more irregular and varied in shape than saltwater pearls, with over 90% of freshwater pearls having irregular shapes, as opposed to the desired perfect spheres. In fact, only about 2% of all freshwater pearls are round or near-round. Many freshwater cultured pearls don’t have a bead nucleus, only requiring a piece of tissue to be formed, grown in mussels, and this process results in a thicker-nacre formation during the pearl formation. They typically come from China, Australia, India, the United States, and Japan, and are available in a wide range of pearl colors, shapes, and sizes, being produced in pastel shades of pink, lavender, and peach. Freshwater pearls take a shorter amount of time to form, and are generally more abundant in the marketplace. Freshwater pearls are also largely considered to be not as lustrous, as well as being smaller, than the saltwater pearls, but they are generally more affordable and more durable, less prone to chipping or damage. Cultivated for a shorter duration, and being able to produce up to thirty pearls at a time, cultivated freshwater pearls are less expensive to cultivate, making them the most common pearl on the market. The most common pearl-growth period for freshwater pearls is three to five years, although some may take up to seven years to grow. Freshwater pearls also come in a wide variety of natural colors, including white, cream, orange, pink, and lavender. 


South Sea pearls are saltwater pearls that are produced in either the silver-lipped Pinctada Maxima, or the gold-lipped Pinctada Maxima, which is also the mollusk that is most frequently farmed for mother-of-pearl. Always over 10mm in size, and getting as large as 20mm at times, South Sea pearls are white, gold, or silver in color, with a rich nacre as a result of growing for many years in the warm waters of the South Seas, lending the stones their name. South Sea pearls, which are all saltwater pearls, are cultivated most readily in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Their large size and thick nacre, plus their limited critical growing conditions, at risk because of climate change, are all factors contributing to their value and market price. South Sea pearls are the largest cultured pearls on the market today, with round South Sea pearls being the rarest and most expensive. South Sea pearls are of exceptional quality and are the most sought-after of all cultured pearls. Their larger size, rich luster and smooth finish make them more expensive than other cultured pearls.


seed pearls

Seed pearls are small natural pearls that measure 2mm or less in diameter. They are almost always round or nearly-round, and are generally used in clusters or tassels, or sewn into patterns, used as accents and woven into straps or ropes. 


Blister pearls grow attached to the inner surface of the mollusk’s shell as they form, rather than loose in the mantle. They have the same iridescent nacre as the inner surface of the shell, but the back of the pearl is usually flat, without any pearly coating. To be released from the mollusk, they must be cut away from the shell, which causes the flat back with no nacre. 


baroque pearls

Baroque pearls, and semi-baroque pearls, are any pearls (natural or cultivated, freshwater or saltwater) that have a non-spherical, irregular shape, which is sought after by some pearl connoisseurs. Typically used in more fashion-forward pieces, they break from the traditional round pearl, each having their very own unique shape and size. Large Baroque pearls are becoming increasingly difficult to find, which means that they are steadily increasing in price throughout the years. 


Mabé pearls are cultured blister pearls, and can be grown in either freshwater or saltwater, with a hemispherical nucleus placed against the shell wall, as opposed to in the tissue, as with other cultured pearls. After the domed pearl is cut away from the shell, the nucleus is generally removed, replaced with resin, and covered with mother-of-pearl. Because mabé pearls are constructed, they are not as durable as other types of pearls, and over time, the nacre coating can lift off, become damaged, or discolor. Mabé pearls are also sometimes referred to as half-pearls, and are often relied on for the look of a luxurious pearl, but at a fraction of the price. They can also be oval, pear, or irregularly shaped, still retaining a beautiful luster and available in a range of colors, with white and gold being the most popular. 


Related, but typically considered a category all its own, mother-of-pearl is the iridescent inner lining of a mollusk shell, formed from layers of nacre secreted by the mantle. Mother-of-pearl is traditionally used in thin slices for inlay, carved for jewelry, used to back mabé pearls, and carved as buttons and cameos.

Shop our incredible selection of pearl jewelry here. 

Previous article René Lalique’s "L'Anémone des Bois" Brooch
Next article A Closer Look: Alphonse Mucha’s “Les Saisons” Lithographs