What Exactly Is A Pearl ?


Pearls have been around (and loved) for 1000s of years, and everybody knows one when they see one. Yet as I include more and more of these lovely things in my jewellery, I get more and more people asking me questions about them. Curious.

Here are two of some of the most common questions being asked about pearls, their answers, and an explanation of why so many people have come to adore them.


What Is A Pearl?

A pearl is a beautiful, lustrous gem that we gather from oysters and actually a result of its protective instincts.

Oysters are really only hard on the outside. On the inside, they’re very soft and very vulnerable, so they have to be careful.

When an oyster gets something irritating (like sand) stuck in its shell, it will definitely notice. Once it does, it secretes a semi-translucent substance called ‘nacre.’ It’s meant to act as a protective barrier between the substance and its soft body.

It will cover it with layer after layer of that nacre. Over long periods of time, it builds up and comes to take on the shape and luster that we know and love from pearls. 

Well… Sometimes. There’s no guarantee. (more on why and what else it could create in the next sections) And it takes years to make a pearl of a decent size, so this is by no means an overnight process.

Knowing what a pearl is, the question becomes…

 How Is A Pearl Made?

It takes a long time for an oyster to make a pearl, and there’s no guarantee that when it does, it’ll look the way we appreciate they do.

Out of every 10,000 oysters found in the wild, only one will have a pearl. And a ridiculously small number of those will be of very fine quality. Yet there’s been a huge human demand for them for decades.

So people started looking for ways to create pearls on demand.

People have been making various mollusks, like oysters, create pearls for more than 1000 years of human history. The Chinese were making blister pearls as early as the fifth century.

About a hundred years ago, an ingenious human intervention brought about a more predictable way of making high-quality pearls.

The result?

The cultured pearl, which now makes up the vast majority of the pearls on the market.


Cultured pearls are made when a highly skilled pearl technician places a particle (usually a small round piece of shell or oyster mantle tissue) in a specific spot inside of the oyster. This will be the pearl’s nucleus.

It’s considered a delicate surgery. The quality and quantity of pearls reflects the skill of the pearl technician. It’s a painstaking procedure, implanting the nucleus and it requires real talent and precision.

After it’s done, they put the oyster on lines and in cages and return them to the water where they are nurtured for up to three years. Sometimes even longer. It’s expensive to do this. And labor intensive, properly securing the oysters and lifting them up and down to clean and inspect the, throughout the years.

Moreover, there’s no guarantee that an oyster will ever make a pearl! Oysters are particularly sensitive creatures; even slight changes in water temperature or nutrition can kill off entire crops.

Only about 20% of pearl cultivation results in marketable pearls. Of these, perhaps only 1-2% are of top quality, keeping these rarities in high demand.



Is there any questions you have on pearls that you would like me to answer? Share your thoughts down below and let’s have a conversation!

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