The South Sea Pearl Consortium, sponsored by Paspaley, answers some of the most frequently asked questions about the rarest and largest pearl of all, the white South Sea pearl.
What is a South Sea pearl?
A pearl is a gift of nature, a truly beautiful work of art.
The white South Sea pearl is at the height of its perfection when it is taken from its shell. It is as complete and perfect in its own way as an exquisite work of art.
However, this most special gem is also unique, produced in the waters off the Australian coast by the rarest and largest oysters in the world - the Pinctada Maxima. This shell produces the most beautiful nacre, a creamy smooth lustrous material, which possesses a subdued opalescence. The size and thickness of the shell and the lustre of the nacre it produces results in the rarest and most sought after pearl in the world - the white South Sea pearl. A pearl of which dreams are made.
Throughout history, the natural South Sea pearl has been regarded as the prize of all pearls. The discovery of the most prolific South Sea pearl beds off North Australia and Indonesia in the early 1800's culminated in the most voluptuous era of pearls in Europe in the Victorian era.
The South Sea pearl is distinguished from all other pearls by its magnificent thick natural nacre which produces an unequalled lustre - a lustre which does not merely deliver "shine" as with other pearls - but a complex lustre which resembles a soft creamy voluptuous intangible appearance which changes mood under different light conditions.
It is the beauty of this nacre which has endeared the South Sea pearl to jewellery connoisseurs over the centuries.
The mother of the South Sea pearl is the giant silver lip and gold lip Pinctada Maxima pearl oyster - the largest and most beautiful of the world’s oysters.
This rare solitary oyster only exists on an extremely limited number of shell beds found in the warm tropical seas sometimes referred to as the South Seas - hence the name of the pearl. This area of ocean stretches from North Australia, through Indonesia, the Phillippines, to the southern tip of Burma.
In addition to the superior quality of the nacre of the Pinctada Maxima oyster, due to the huge size of the shells, South Sea pearls are also the largest and most voluptuous of the world's pearls. Due to the thickness of nacre produced by these shells, the South Sea pearl is also famous for the variety of unique and desirable shapes often found.
The South Sea pearl has a wide repertoire of colours. It can display an array of colours from white through silver, and from cream through yellow to deep gold. The pearls may also display a lovely "overtone" of a different colour such as pink, blue, or green. On very rare occasions a very dark blue pearl may be found which can be described as a "black" pearl.
Today, as is the case with other natural pearls, the natural South Sea pearl has all but disappeared from the world pearl markets. The vast majority of South Sea pearls available today are cultivated on pearl farms in the South Seas.
The fine art of cultivating South Sea pearls has been developed over the past 50 years after the invention of the plastic button in the 1950's decimated the pearling fleets which dived for mother of pearl shells for pearl buttons. Natural South Sea pearls were found during this process of shelling.
Today, the protection of the shell's natural habitat, and the preservation of the natural pearl stocks has enabled the cultured South Sea pearl to be cultivated under "sustainable resource" conditions. Today's era of cultured South Sea pearls may well be seen in years to come as the richest pearl period in man's history.