Since recorded history, man has coveted the luminous white gems we call pearls. Revered the world over for their rare beauty, otherworldly sheen and understated elegance, pearls are as popular in modern society as they were with European royals and Egyptian princesses centuries ago. Today, pearl jewelry connoisseurs have a new love: black pearls. Exotic, luxurious and rare, a rich black pearl necklace presents a striking picture–the gems definitely lack the demure, chaste image of their classic white counterparts. For the woman who has everything, a black pearl necklace, whether showcased alone in a pendant or in a perfectly matched strand, makes a wonderful addition to her jewelry collection. Think of how lovely a black pearl necklace will look on any skin tone!
Where do jewelers get the pearls they use in a matched black pearl necklace?
“Black” pearls are also known as “Tahitian cultured pearls,” but both names are misleading. Not only are Tahitian cultured pearls not exclusively black, they’re also not grown in Tahiti. Called “black” because of their exotic dark colors, Tahitian cultured pearls can be gray, blue, green and brown. And they’re grown in the lagoons of small islands that are part of a group known as French Polynesia. Tahiti, the largest island, serves as the group’s center of commerce, and not as a pearl growing mecca. Interestingly, fine Tahitian cultured pearls have only been on the market since the 1970s. Yet they have become quite popular in that short time.
Growing Tahitian pearls
Tahitian pearls are cultivated for around two years in Pinctada margaritifera cumingi, a large saltwater mollusk that is native to French Polynesia. One of the ways this unique oyster differs from other species is that its interior shell color is dark. This so-called “black lipped” oyster also has black mantle edges–the “lips” that give the animal its descriptive name. Due to overfishing, adult wild oyster populations aren’t as plentiful as they used to be. In an effort to reverse this trend, the government protects the animals; pearl farmers in French Polynesia who wish to culture the black lipped oyster must raise the oysters from spat (baby oysters). If the farmer is successful in nurturing the spat to adulthood, at around two and a half to three years old, the oysters are implanted with mantle tissue and a mother-of-pearl bead to start the pearl growing process. This delicate operation is performed by specially trained workers called nucleators; even so, according to the Gemological Institute of America, more than 50 percent of the oysters die or reject the nucleus.
Literature from GIA says, “Add those oysters to the ones that don’t meet the implantation criteria: The farmer’s potential pearl-producing stock is less than half the number that lived long enough to be considered for nucleation. When the pearl growth period begins, after three years of work, the farmer has only 20 percent of the oysters he collected as spat.” No wonder a fine quality Tahitian cultured pearl is so rare!
Tahitian pearl growth generally takes place in a closed lagoon that is ringed by coral reefs. Such a setup offers protection and a stable environment for the implanted oysters to complete the pearl-growing process. After the oysters have been submerged for 22 to 26 months, they’re hauled to the surface, where any pearls they managed to grow are harvested. The farmers then clean and lightly buff the gems prior to offering them for sale. Farmers also sort the pearls by color, shape, etc. and grouped with like pearls.
In the end, only one to two percent of the Tahitian cultured pearl crop consists of fine quality round cultured pearls.
Today, the most sought-after Tahitian cultured pearls are dark green-gray to blue gray with rosé or purple overtones. But how do pearls get their color? No one is completely sure, but we do know that pearl colors are determined by several factors, including variations in the host oyster, color variation of the implanted donor mussel tissue, the number and thickness of nacre layers, and variations in growing environment such as temperature and water quality. Tahitian pearls are most often variations of gray, black, green and blue, but other colors exist. Search on the Internet for Tahitian cultured pearl images, and you will see they are not all black!
Buying a black pearl necklace
At an average size of 8mm-14mm, Tahitian cultured pearls–especially those specimens that are gem-quality and round–are very expensive. (GIA estimates that one first-quality, unusually large Tahitian cultured pearl will set you back thousands of dollars!) If only one to two percent of the harvest produces a fine quality round Tahitian cultured pearl, imagine how long it takes to make a matched strand! No wonder a black pearl necklace is so costly. Choose carefully, keeping in mind that pearls with a desirable overtone (secondary color) and pearls that are larger than typical will be more expensive. Look for pearls that are well-matched, not pitted or marked in any obvious way (minor surface characteristics are acceptable). Be sure to check return policies up front, too, in case you have a problem. Ask your retail jeweler for his or her store policy or, if buying online, check the site’s guarantee prior to making a purchase. Once you receive your pearls, be sure to examine them closely. After wearing, store your pearl necklace away from other gems; while fairly durable, pearls are prone to scratching and their nacre will erode over time, especially if exposed to harsh chemicals like bleach, perfume and chlorine.
Black pearl necklaces in modern fashion
Although slow to catch on at first, thanks in part to publicity from stars such as actress Elizabeth Taylor, a renowned jewelry collector who wore a striking black pearl necklace in publicity photos for her Black Pearls perfume launch, Tahitian cultured pearls are wildly popular today. It’s not hard to find examples of fine black pearl jewelry in modern society. Look around and you’ll see black pearl necklaces on everyone from businesswomen to moms to Hollywood A-list actresses, models and celebrities. Take Kiera Knightly, for example, who wore a stunning black baroque Tahitian cultured pearl choker at the premier of her movie, The Black Pearl. Stars like Christy Turlington, Naomi Watts, Heidi Klum, Michael Michelle, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Shalom Harlow are also pearl fans.
Perhaps black pearls’ popularity is why designers like David Yurman, Elsa Peretti and Paloma Picasso (for Tiffany & Co.) are incorporating stunning black pearls, and even black baroque and black keshi pearls, into modern designs like long chain necklaces, brooches, chokers and charm bracelets. Black pearl drop earrings and pendants are also favorites, as they require little matching–or none at all. Whimsical designs on cufflinks and in popular frog, dragonfly and other animal pins incorporate black pearls as well.
Black pearl necklace alternatives
When most people think of black pearl jewelry, they naturally think of Tahitian cultured pearls. But prices are high for these rare gems, in part due to their large size, unusual colors, and the high cost of producing them. If you want to wear real Tahitian cultured pearls, one way to do so without breaking the bank is to choose a pendant-style necklace with a single pearl; black pearl stud earrings; a single black pearl ring, or black baroque (non-symmetrical) pearls. These designs are every bit as exotic yet much more affordable than a matched black pearl strand.
For customers for whom Tahitian pearl jewelry is beyond reach, there are some inexpensive yet beautiful alternatives to the classic black pearl necklace. Today, freshwater pearls–round, drop, button and baroque–are color-treated to produce a look that closely resembles the hue of Tahitian cultured pearls. The natural-looking result is beautiful and looks great in such pieces as a baroque black pearl bracelet, black pearl drop earrings or black pearl necklace. Every bit as real as their Tahitian cousins, black freshwater cultured pearls’ color is man-made, but keep in mind that nearly all pearls are treated somehow (bleaching is the most common enhancement).
If you’re after not only the color but the size of fine Tahitian pearls, consider a black “pearl” necklace made from black mother-of-pearl beads. Their generous size, lustrous sheen and affordable price make them a popular alternative to a fine Tahitian pearl necklace.