Like any natural product, pearls follow a regimented process that takes them from the capricious sea to the height of civility. These steps from mollusk to market ensure that pearls are perfectly matched and expertly crafted. This is the story of how pearls become jewels.
All pearls are prepared for market in some way. Following harvest, most are simply washed and dried. The pearls are soaked in a mild cleansing solution and bathed in fluorescent light, removing any impurities that may have accumulated on the pearls’ surface during years spent submerged in the sea.
Pearls destined for necklaces, pendants, earrings and rings must be drilled, allowing master craftsmen to string pearls together in strands or mount in other jewelry. Cultured pearls that will be made into strands are drilled all the way through on a specialty machine with two opposing drill bits, reducing the chance of fracture to the delicate nacre surface. Stud earrings and rings are drilled halfway through.
The drilling process produces a lot of heat and stress on the pearl. The quality of execution may affect the pearl value, so attention is paid to selecting the best drilling location. First one side, then the other, is slowly drilled to avoid any damage. One slip or miscalculation could destroy the pearl.
Next, the pearls are separated into broadly matched categories. With agile hands and keen eyes, processors use sieves to gradually sort the pearls by size in millimeter ranges. Thousands of pearls are combed through and the misshapen, discolored or structurally weak are discarded. Further stages of sorting group pearls of nearly identical color and luster.
Processors loosely string matched pearls on silk or nylon thread to form 14- or 16-inch temporary strands known as hanks. These bundles of matched pearls filter through the production chain until a designer can craft individual jewelry pieces; knotted, clasped and ready to wear.
Uniformity is the goal when sorting and matching pearls. Pearls destined for earrings are matched in pairs, while necklaces require 40, 50 or even 100 pearls of symmetrical value. Just one pair of Spey earrings may require sorting through over 10,000 pearls to find a match. Jewelers often spend months or even years matching pearls for the perfect piece of jewelry.
Pearls have been used as adornments for almost 6,000 years, when the first fishermen turned unexpected natural pearls into cherished amulets. That love affair continues to this day, with jewelers and designers turning out ever more creative and breathtaking pieces of pearl jewelry. Pearls are a classic and timeless accessory.