“How did they get that magenta-colored pearl to be magenta?”

The Five-Year-Old's favorite pearl necklace. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Five-Year-Old’s favorite pearl necklace. (Photo: Shala Howell)

The Five-Year-Old’s favorite metal may be gold cooked by some long destroyed star, but her favorite necklace is actually made of materials forged somewhere much closer to home.

At the moment, The Five-Year-Old’s favorite necklace–the one she wears only on truly fancy occasions–is a strand of fake pearls I picked up at a JC Penney’s for $20 bucks twenty years ago. They may made of glass, wax, and essence d’orient (whatever that is), but they look gorgeous on The Five-Year-Old, who absolutely adores them. And that makes them an excellent tool for teaching her how to take care of more delicate jewelry.

The Five-Year-Old’s pearl necklace is a traditional whitish cream, but while browsing through our local department store a few weeks ago, she noticed that strings of pearls come in all sorts of colors–blue, green, chocolate brown, gold, champagne, pink, even magenta.

And so The Five-Year-Old’s mind formed a question: “Mommyo, how did they get that magenta-colored pearl to be magenta?”

As I’ve learned from a happy morning spent browsing the Mikura Pearls and Answers.com websites, naturally occurring (or cultivated) pearls come in different colors, depending in part on the type of oyster that produces them and the process used to treat them. Naturally occurring pearls are extremely rare and quite expensive (the Baroda pearls sold at auction recently for $7 million). The Five-Year-Old and I don’t frequent the sorts of places where natural pearls can be found, so I focused my research on cultivated pearls.

South Sea pearls

A strand of South Sea pearls. (Photo: Mikura.com)

A strand of South Sea pearls. (Photo: Mikura.com)

The most expensive cultured pearl on the market today is the South Sea pearl. There are actually two types of South Sea pearls, both produced by the deep-sea loving and notoriously hard to cultivate Pinctada maxima oyster.

White South Sea pearls occur naturally in white, silver, blue, cream, and champagne, and are occasionally dyed brown. Golden South Sea pearls are prized for their golden, cream, and champagne hues, the darker the better–the most valuable being a deep and intense gold.

The gorgeous blue, green, silver, peacock, grey, and pistachio colors of Tahitian pearls (my husband's favorite) all occur naturally. No dyeing here. (Photo: Mikura.com)

The gorgeous blue, green, silver, peacock, grey, and pistachio colors of Tahitian pearls (my husband’s favorite) all occur naturally. No dyeing here. (Photo: Mikura.com)

Tahitian Pearls

The Pinctada margaritifera cumnigi oyster which produces the next-most-expensive Tahitian pearls are primarily farmed in and around the South Pacific island of Tahiti.

Their natural array of deep blue, green, silver, peacock, grey and pistachio colors are so striking that Tahitian pearls are often sold just as they are. But if one day you find yourself holding a chocolate Tahitian pearl, don’t write it off as a fake. It’s probably just been treated with heat.

Japanese Akoya pearls

Akoya pearls being extracted from the oyster. (Photo: Keith Pomakis via Wikipedia)

Akoya pearls being extracted from the oyster. (Photo: Keith Pomakis via Wikipedia)

The classic cultured pearls, the Japanese Akoya pearl, are produced by the Pinctada fucata martensii oyster, the smallest pearl producing oyster. These 2 – 10 mm pearls are prized for their round shape and extremely high luster.

Fresh from the oyster Akoya pearls come in white, grey, blue, pink, rose, cream and silver, with overtones of green, pink, and silver. Dark grey or black Akoya pearls are made by treating the pearl with Cobalt-60 radiation, which acts on the manganese in the pearl’s nuclei, to deepen the pearl’s natural color. Akoya pearls can also be dyed a luscious gold.

Freshwater pearls

Given their relatively low price and irregular shape, the magenta pearls that caught The Five-Year-Old’s attention were most likely freshwater pearls. Freshwater pearls are cultivated in freshwater-loving mussels, not oysters.

Freshwater pearls come in a startling array of colors. (Photo via Pearls, diamonds and fashion)

Freshwater pearls come in a startling array of colors. (Photo via Pearls, diamonds and fashion)

Because freshwater pearl cultivation is triggered with a scrap of mussel mantle tissue rather than a perfectly round bead, freshwater pearls tend to be irregularly shaped. Each mussel can be seeded with 24 to 32 pearls at a time, making the process far less expensive than traditional pearl cultivation. As a result, freshwater pearls are both relatively abundant and affordable.

Freshwater pearls naturally occur in white, lavender, mauve, and pink. They can also be treated with aniline organic dyes to create the darker green, peacock, deep sapphire blue and onyx hues, as well as the bright magenta color so captivating for The Five-Year-Old eye.

So, what color is your favorite strand of pearls?

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About Shala Howell

I write about wildly curious kids, rabbits who hunt dragons, and 1880s Boston. When I’m not scratching my head over pesky characters who refuse to do things how I want them done or dreaming of my next book (which will of course be much easier to write than the current one), I blog about life with a very curious Ten-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, muse about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, or tweet about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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