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Behind the Sparkle: Pearls (Part 1)

This organic treasure has a rich history and fascinating features!


by Bethany Hawn & Lauren Gooch - June 8, 2020

Pearls are associated with special memories in our lives – gathering sea shells at the beach, wearing a strand of pearls on your wedding day, or receiving pearls as a birthday gift since they’re June’s birthstone. But as common as pearls are, they aren’t your typical gemstone. Pearls are an organic gem, meaning they come from a living organism. How do natural pearls form? What’s the difference between “natural” and “cultured” pearls? Bethany answers these questions and more in this feature.


Pearls and mother of pearl have been used as adornments for centuries in jewelry, buttons, and for clothing or accents in decor. The oldest record of pearls being mentioned dates back to an ancient Chinese writing in 2206 BC. As years passed, the desire for pearls remained strong. As a symbol of status and wealth, many royal families sought after these lustrous gems. Christopher Columbus, on his third and fourth voyage to the New World, discovered natives of present day Venezuela and Panama wearing natural pearls.


This discovery intensified demand for pearls in Europe and caused an explosion of overfishing for almost 100 years. It was this discovery that, in part, caused a decline in the supply of Natural Pearls. Although, in many countries the primary reason for collecting mollusks were to produce mother of pearl buttons – finding natural pearls was a secondary source of income. Once mass-produced plastic buttons became popular in the 1920’s and the demand for mother of pearl declined, it was no longer financially feasible to harvest natural pearls. Although natural pearls still exist where pearl-bearing mollusks live, a shell diver might search HUNDREDS of oysters without finding a single pearl and of those, few would be gem quality.


Natural Pearls are formed inside any pearl-bearing mollusk. This occurs when an irritant, usually a small parasite (not a grain of sand, as many people think) enters the shell. The mollusk responds by issuing a layer of nacre, which layers over time, forming a pearl. Less than 2% of natural pearls are perfectly round. In the early 1900s Japanese and Australian experts began to culture pearls. That way, they could control the size, quality, and number of each pearl produced. Implanting a bead nucleus irritates the mollusk as a parasite would, which produces nacre to form on the perfectly round bead. This technique nearly wiped out the need for natural pearls completely, and now 99% of all pearls are cultured. Pearl-bearing mollusks also produce nacre on the inside of their shell. This is called mother of pearl.

Stay tuned for Part Two of our Pearl Behind the Sparkle to find out the four types of pearls, including the rarest – the Golden South Sea Pearl. Stop by Bethany’s Jewelry and Design at 84 Main Street in Wellsboro to see their selection of pearl earrings, necklaces, and rings. Receive 20% off all pearl jewelry for the month of June if you mention this feature! Additional contact information for Bethany’s is listed below:

Phone: (570) 724-7333






Videography: Andrew Moore

Video Editing: Andrew Moore

Writing: Bethany Hawn & Lauren Gooch

Anchor: Lauren Gooch


Produced by Vogt Media

Funded by Bethany’s Jewelry & Design

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