All Pearl Everything: Care Tips, Symbolism, Identification & Styling the Queen of Gems | GLDN
What makes pearls so special?
Timeless, elegant and iconic—pearls run the (jewelry) world. They’re the only precious gemstone formed inside of a living thing and each pearl is truly one-of-a-kind, like a snowflake or fingerprint! Combine this with the history and symbolism behind pearls, and it’s no wonder this lustrous beauty has been a jewelry staple for thousands of years. 🤍
Believed to be tears of the gods in ancient Greece and a manifestation of the moon in ancient China, pearls have a rich and storied history dating back to around 400 BC. As with most gemstones and precious jewels, pearls were initially worn as a status symbol for royalty and the nobility—but the tides have changed (pearl pun!) and this lustrous gemstone is now worn and loved by many, as it should be.
How are pearls made?
Or, the better question is: How are pearls formed? It’s quite a magical process! Unlike earth-mined gemstones (like diamonds, rubies, sapphires and all the others), pearls are gemstones of the water—the only gemstone formed within a living thing, namely oysters or mussels. When a grain of sand makes its way into its shell, the mollusk creates a substance called nacre (pronounced “nay·ker”) to coat the debris and protect its soft tissue. Layers of nacre—a combo of calcium carbonate and other organic substances—are what create a pearl, which typically takes a few years to develop! This same iridescent substance coats the inner shell of the mollusk, known by us as mother of pearl. If you looked at it under a microscope, you’d find tiny crystals in a circular pattern…which creates pearls' iconic luster and iridescence!
Thanks to this process, pearls are naturally perfect and don’t need to be cut or polished before being used in a piece of jewelry. Oh, and get this: natural pearls are one of the rarest gemstones in the world; only about one in every 10,000 saltwater oysters contains a precious pearl.
What are the different types of pearls?
To start, pearls fall into three overarching categories: natural pearls, cultured pearls or synthetic pearls. Natural pearls are real, authentic pearls that have been found in the wild. Cultured pearls are also real, authentic pearls—but these have been intentionally grown to use for jewelry or other applications! Synthetic pearls are fake pearls made of glass, ceramic, plastic or shell parts to simulate a pearl-like look. By a landslide, cultured pearls are the most common kind of pearl you’ll find in a jewelry piece—as much as 95% of genuine pearls are grown on farms versus found in the wild.
As the name suggests, freshwater pearls are formed by freshwater mussels! Compared to saltwater pearls, freshwater pearls are created with a thicker layer of nacre, resulting in more shine and a longer-lasting gemstone that’s less susceptible to the elements and everyday wear. Freshwater pearls are often oval or irregularly shaped (compared to the round pearls of the sea) and take their color from the nacre of the shell they were grown in. We exclusively use freshwater pearls in our pieces because they last longer, shine brighter and are more affordable than their sisters of the sea.
You guessed it: saltwater pearls are formed by saltwater oysters, often found in the seas surrounding Japan, China or Australia. As we mentioned earlier, saltwater pearls are more uniformly round in shape compared to their freshwater counterparts, and require extra care so their thinner layer of nacre won’t get damaged.
How can you tell if a pearl is real?
Aside from consulting a gemologist or jeweler to examine the internal structure of the pearl, there are a few ways to tell if a pearl is real right at home.
- Rub two pearls together: Most real pearls will have a slight grittiness or create subtle friction you can feel.
- Hold your pearls up to the light: Real pearls have a unique luster or iridescence that’s hard to replicate. Instead of overtly shining, genuine pearls have a soft glow.
- Check the surface of your pearls: Real pearls have slight imperfections and irregularities (also known as “growth features”) you might be able to feel or see with a magnifying glass.
- Take the temperature of your pearls: Real pearls are cold to the touch for the first few seconds! Place your pearls against your cheek or the back of your hand; they should be cold at first before warming up to your skin. Synthetic pearls won’t emit any coolness at first touch.
- See if your pearls have weight: Real pearls tend to be heavier than their imitations.
- Look for drill holes in your pearls: Real pearls will often have circular ridges or rings around the drill hole (due to the layers of nacre); synthetic pearls won’t have these.
How do you know if a pearl is high-quality?
When we say high-quality, we’re strictly talking about the market value of the pearl—plenty of gorgeous pearls won’t be appraised for much, but still make gorgeous jewelry pieces you can love for a lifetime! That said, if you’re looking to sell or invest in pearls, we have a few suggestions:
- Check the size of your pearl: The larger the pearl, the more valuable it is (since it takes longer to grow)! On the flip side, sometimes teeny-tiny pearls will be expensive, too, since they’re harder to work with.
- Assess the luster of your pearl: The shinier the pearl, the more valuable it is. Pearls are revered for their luminous glow, so more of that is always a good thing!
- Evaluate the surface of your pearl: A pearl with fewer surface blemishes will be more valuable.
- Check the shape of your pearl: Typically, the more perfectly rounded the pearl is, the more expensive it’ll be.
- See if your pearl is freshwater or saltwater: Saltwater pearls are more expensive than freshwater pearls due to their rarity. Saltwater oysters only produce one pearl at a time, but freshwater mussels typically produce multiple pearls at a time! Saltwater pearls are often more round and uniform in shape.
- Assess the color of your pearls: Rare pearl colors, like blue, brown, purple, peacock, aubergine, gold and silver are typically more valuable than more common pearl colors, like white and cream.
What colors do pearls come in?
The better question should be: what colors don’t pearls come in? From classic white and cream to metallic gold and silver to rich, jewel-toned blue, peacock and aubergine, pearls range from light and bright to dark and stormy, all depending on three things: the type of mollusk, the amount of nacre layers and the thickness of those layers. Pearls are composed of layers of nacre—also called mother-of-pearl—that form inside a mollusk and influence the color of the pearl it creates.
Since pearls are created through layers of nacre, pearls will often have an overtone: a faint, iridescent color that shines in the light! The next time you wear a white pearl, see what overtone it has—usually you’ll find a faint silver, rose or cream glowing from the surface of the pearl.
What do pearls symbolize?
The meaning of pearls varies from culture to culture, century to century, and person to person, but we all largely agree that pearls symbolize wisdom, enlightenment and purity—a wearable emblem of love and spiritual transformation. Each tone of pearl also holds its own specific meaning:
- White pearls: symbolize clarity, purity and wisdom
- Cream pearls: symbolize elegance, warmth and success
- Peach pearls: symbolize balance, health and longevity
- Gold pearls: symbolize joy, abundance and radiance
- Lavender and pink pearls: symbolize love, compassion and femininity
- Blue and silver pearls: symbolize tranquility, honesty and faith
- Peacock pearls: symbolize reflection, vigilance and good luck
- Black pearls: symbolize protection, power and stability
How do you care for pearl jewelry?
Pearls are natural, moisture-loving gemstones that react negatively to chemicals and harsh cleansers—but it’s easy to keep them happy and lustrous for a lifetime with a few easy care tips!
Common offenders like perfume, lotion, sunscreen, hairspray, makeup, cleaning products, hot tubs and swimming pools or anything acidic—even lemon and vinegar in your kitchen—can dull a pearl’s luster or etch away at the surface of the pearl. We always say that pearls should be the last thing you put on when getting ready, and the first thing you take off at the end of the day (just to be extra diligent about avoiding chemicals!).
Pearls are softer than metal and other common gemstones, so we suggest removing your pearls before any rigorous activities—like sports, workouts, gardening or chores—and taking extra care when storing your pearl pieces.
Avoid High Temperatures
Just like us, pearls weren’t made for extended, unprotected time in direct sunlight. High heat may dry out the organic material in the pearl and affect its color or luster—AKA exactly what you don’t want! If you live in an extremely hot, dry climate and have an all-day outing planned in direct sunlight, leave your pearls at home (they’ll thank you!).
Avoid Water & Sweat
Pearls came from the water…so surely they feel right at home there, right? Quite the opposite! Pearls thrive in humid environments, but submerging your pearls in water isn’t recommended. Pearls can absorb water and cause fermentation inside the pearl itself, slowly damaging them and rendering them unwearable.
Wear Pearls Often
The best thing you can do for your pearls? Wear them often. The natural oils found in your skin (combined with fresh air) creates the perfect amount of moisture for pearls to thrive, and protects them from drying out and cracking.
Remove & Wipe Down Daily
Instead of sleeping in your pearls, give them the night off! At the end of each day, we recommend removing your pearls and gently wiping them to remove any sweat, oil or chemical residue that might’ve built up during the day.
Check out our essential care tips for all metals for more info on cleaning your gold-filled, solid gold and sterling silver pearl pieces!
How do you clean pearl jewelry?
Typically, wiping with a soft, slightly dampened cloth is all you need to clean your pearl jewelry—unless your pearls come into contact with chemicals, beauty products or cleaning supplies (AKA pearl’s arch nemeses). In this case, it’s best to deep-clean your pearls as soon as possible! We also recommend deep-cleaning your pearls every ten wears or so to keep them shining bright.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Bowl of lukewarm water
- Pure, gentle, unscented soap
- 3 soft cotton cloths (nothing abrasive!)
Here’s how to clean them:
- STEP 1: Add a drop of gentle, unscented soap to your bowl of lukewarm water.
- STEP 2: Dampen your first cloth with the soapy water and gently wipe each pearl.
- STEP 3: Dampen your second cloth with clean water (no soap) and gently wipe each pearl again to remove the soap from step 2.
- STEP 4: Use your third cloth to gently dry each pearl.
- STEP 5: Leave your pearls on the dry cloth for a few hours to dry completely before storage.
How do you store pearl jewelry?
Wondering how to store your pearl earrings, pearl necklaces, pearl bracelets and pearl rings to keep them lovely for a lifetime?
- Wipe clean before storage: For a light cleaning, wipe down your pearls with a soft cloth before storage; if your jewelry needs a deeper clean, make sure your pearls are 100% dry before storage.
- Avoid airtight containers: Pearls do well with a bit of moisture and airflow, which means that airtight containers (like plastic baggies or safety deposit boxes) do more harm than good.
- Wrap pearls in linen or cloth: Avoid scratches and dings from other jewelry pieces by wrapping your pearls with a soft cloth.
- Store pearls at a stable temperature: Pearls don’t do well in high temperatures (especially in direct sunlight).
- Place pearls in a soft pouch: Call them introverts, but pearls do best stored alone (to avoid scratches from other metals).
- Store strung pearls flat: For pearl jewelry strung on silk, avoid stretching our your pieces by storing them flat instead of hanging.
How do you style pearls in a modern way?
These ain’t your grandma’s pearls! Or even if they are—there are so many ways to style them to feel fresh and new.
Mix and match pearl studs
Speckle your stack with dots of pearls—like our classic Pearl Studs or our organic, one-of-a-kind Baroque Pearl Studs—and jumble them with gold, silver or gemstone studs to keep it light and playful. Don’t be afraid to switch up your stacks from ear to ear for a perfectly imperfect look.
Stack pearls with chains
The easiest way to add edge to pearls? Combine a dainty pearl piece (like our Pearl Droplet Necklace or Mishko Pearl Necklace) with a bold, hefty chain (our Faun Chain is a classic choice) for a balance of femininity and masculinity that pairs as well with a dress as it does with a tee and sneakers.
We also love our longer, bolder Baroque Pearl Necklace on its own or layered with shorter, choker-length chains.
Play with pearl earrings
Great movement? Check. Endless versatility? Check! Our Pearl Droplet Earrings (in gold and silver) sway with every step and add a seriously fun spin to your classic pearls. Style them asymmetrically (with two in one ear, one in the other) or add them to a second or third piercing. Our Kana Earrings are another GLDN classic: a classic midsize hoop with large removable pearl charms!
What are some fun facts about pearls?
We couldn’t sign off of this blog without a few interesting facts about pearls! (As if we all needed any more reasons to love them so much.)
🤍 Every pearl is unique; no two are exactly alike. A pearl’s distinguishing features (bumps, irregularities, blemishes) are known as its fingerprint.
🦪 Only about one in every 10,000 saltwater oysters contain a pearl!
💍 Pearls are the traditional 30th wedding anniversary gift.
✨ It takes anywhere from six months to three years for a pearl to be formed. Freshwater pearls grow at about 5mm per year; saltwater pearls only grow about 3mm per year.
🎂 Pearls are June’s birthstone!