June has two birthstones, the pearl and the alexandrite. In this post, I want to talk about the pearl and in particular, the freshwater pearl. Freshwater pearls have been used in jewellery for centuries and are still used today. The natural seed pearl is something we see in a lot of antique and modern jewellery. However, natural large spherical pearls were incredibly rare and expensive and the quest began to produce a cultured spherical pearl Cultured pearls began to be produced commercially in Japan from around the early 1920s. The focus of the cultured pearl industry was on salt water oyster cultivation while freshwater cultured pearl production using mussels was less developed. Generally, freshwater cultured pearls were considered to be inferior to the cultured salt water pearls. They were usually smaller, often odd shaped, rarely perfectly round and lacking an unblemished lustre.
Last year, I attended a pearl threading course in Melbourne. The instructor had a big selection of pearls to show us and the ones that took my eye were some beautiful spherical multi-coloured freshwater pearls from China. The colours ranged from cream through to pinks and pale purples, even some pale peachy gold ones. They were also huge, more akin to south sea pearls in size.
In the early 1990s, the Chinese pearl industry had began to experiment with new techniques to enhance the quality of their freshwater pearls. The pearl mussel, Hyriopsis Cumingii, is used to produce these beautiful freshwater pearls. The pearl colour depends on the colour of the shell and can be white, purple, peach or pink. The pearls can reach sizes bigger than 15 mm in diameter.