South Sea Pearls: A Primer

South Sea Pearls from Spey Fine Pearl Jewelry in Washington DC

One hasn’t too much difficulty distinguishing South Sea pearls from their Akoya cousins: in size alone, South Sea pearls tower above the rest. But there is a rich and fascinating history behind these impressive gems, one that stretches from the southern coast of Southeast Asia (particularly Myanmar, formerly Burma) to the northern coast of Australia – and even out to the far reaches of the Philippines and Indonesia. These are the South Seas and the pearls that emerge from those waters are some of the most striking and richly lustrous pearls in the world.

The Pinctada maxima oyster is the source of South Sea pearls. The name says it all: the oyster is indeed maxima in size, reaching 12 inches in diameter. These dinner-plate-sized mollusks produce pearls of 8-20 millimeters. By comparison, the 3-5 inch Akoya oysters of Japanese waters spin pearls of 2-10 millimeters. Not only can the oyster itself accommodate a larger pearl, but also it deposits nacre significantly faster than a smaller mollusk – typically 2-3 millimeters per radius. Pristine waters, warm temperatures and abundant plankton promote smooth, satiny and thick nacre deposition, often producing gem-quality pearls in 24 to 36 months.

P. maxima oysters are either silver- or gold-lipped, that is to say the tint of the shell’s interior outer edge displays this most luxurious coloring. The color of this lip indicates the color of the expectant pearl. And yes, South Sea pearls come in a subtle array of colors, from white to silver to gold. The popularity and appeal of these oysters owes much of its success to a different industry entirely. The trade in buttons and mother-of-pearl inlay (for silverware and decorative ornaments) was a lucrative industry. At a time, Australia was supplying nearly three-quarters of the world’s buttons, mostly from the P. maxima oyster. Natural pearls were very rare, but the stunning beauty of the few that were found lit the fuse on global demand for South Sea pearls.

By the 1930s, overfishing in the South Seas had depleted much of the wild oyster stocks. Tracking the decline, strict government regulation was introduced that helped the native populations rebound. Today, the trade is an archetype of sustainability and green-farming practices. Many farms can only be reached by boat or seaplane, preferring the pristine, bio-diverse waters of far reaching islands and lagoons to the densely populated (and polluted) coastlines surrounding human development. Nucleation of the oyster stock generally happens between May and September, the same period during which the South Sea pearls are collected. This is the Southern Hemisphere’s cooler period, when decreasing water temperatures slow down oyster activity and make rehabilitation easier.

After harvest, South Sea pearls are ready to be drilled and strung into fabulous pieces of fine pearl jewelry, like those in the Spey collection. The satin luster and decadent coloring require no treatment – a simple wash will do before sorting, grading and matching. Of course, the broad range of pearls that emerge from the depths is staggering. Differing sizes, shapes, colors and qualities mean that matching a single pair of South Sea pearls for fashioning into earrings may require sorting over 10,000 pearls. It is a process that takes time, but one well worth the wait. Fancy adding South Sea pearls from Spey to your collection? Drop us a note and we’ll create stunning pearl jewelry exactly to your wishes. After all, the world is your oyster.