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Articles from PEARL JEWELLERY (359 Articles), PEARLS - LOOSE WHITE SOUTH SEA (15 Articles), PEARLS - LOOSE KESHI (3 Articles)

Talbot Bay, Western Australia. Location of a Paspaley pearl farm.
Talbot Bay, Western Australia. Location of a Paspaley pearl farm.

Aussie Gemstones: South Sea Cultured Pearl

Pearl is traditionally known as ‘The Queen of Gems’. This royal moniker reflects the regal beauty that South Sea cultured pearls possess and the feeling of warmth and joy they bestow upon wearers. MEGAN AUSTIN reports.

To tell the story of this pearl is to tell the story of its birthplace.

Dotted beneath the tranquil crystal clear waters off the north to north-west coast of Australia there exists an underwater universe of rare silver-lipped and gold-lipped oysters called Pinctada maxima. These deep-sea hanging gardens are created by a team of skilled technicians whose sole mission is to protect and nurture the growing gems cocooned within.

Pinctada maxima are the largest of all oyster shells, capable of growing up to 30 cm in diameter and of producing the largest pearls, some in excess of 20 mm in diameter.

These sensitive and fragile creatures secrete layers of conchiolin onto a round shell bead that’s carefully seeded into the fleshy part of the oyster by trained experts. These layers build up over a minimum of two years to form a unique fingerprint-like surface called nacre.

Unlike freshwater mussels that may contain several beads, each Pinctada maxima oyster contains only one bead, which is intended to produce one precious pearl at a time. Sometimes, a dome-shaped bead is inserted directly onto the wall of the shell to form a mabé or half pearl.

Despite round-the-clock attention, the life of Pinctada maxima is fraught with danger. It must withstand the unpredictable and often destructive forces of nature, including cyclones, intense storms and disease.

In August, the weather starts to cool and the shells enter a resting phase. Nacre deposition slows, producing more compact and lustrous layers. Finally, the pearls are ready for harvesting. This is cause for great excitement among the pearling crew as they anticipate the result of two long years.

Excitement turns to celebration upon discovering one or more large, perfectly- round, lustrous pearls as these are extremely rare and valuable. The prices they fetch will ensure that pearlers have the financial resources to continue farming in the future.

Occasionally, Mother Nature surprises pearlers with a special gift called ‘keshi’. These baroque-shaped pearls form accidentally and are by-products of the culturing process.

The harvested pearls are graded for size, shape, lustre, surface quality and colour, and it is these virtues that help determine the value of each pearl.

The average Australian South Sea cultured pearl measures 12–14 mm but sizes can vary from 8–20 mm or more. Although round shapes are the most valuable, oval, drop, circle and baroque shapes are very popular.

The colours of Australian South Sea cultured pearls vary from luminous white, blue, silver, soft pink and cream to yellow and rich gold. Sometimes a pearl may also display differently coloured overtones.

South Sea pearls also grow in waters around Indonesia, the Philippines, Polynesia and the Cook Islands; however, Australia is the largest producer of top-quality pearls in the world. Unlike some overseas cultured pearls, Australian South Sea pearls are not colour- enhanced in any way. Australian farmers must comply with regulated working conditions and environmental guidelines as stated in Australia’s Pearling Code of Practice.

Megan Austin

Megan Austin FGAA FGA Dip DT BA, is a gemmologist and registered valuer. She operates Megan Austin Valuations.


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