Tahitian pearls are the black swans of the jewelry world. Initially treated with a mixture of suspicion and an indulgent intrigue for the exotic, these mysterious black pearls have fought for the heritage and prestige of their classic white counterparts.
Black pearls have always been incredibly rare and valuable, but for many years jewelers were hesitant to invest in them as they weren’t sure they’d have the same mass-market appeal as the more approachable white pearls.
Now, high quality black pearls are some of the most in-demand pearl varieties on the contemporary jewelry market. Their stunning range of overtone colors and fresh, alternative energy have made them desirable both with both jewelry collectors and modern young millennials looking for an alternative to the more traditional pearl.
Let’s look at where these pearls come from, and what exactly makes them so special.
Where Do Black Pearls Come From?
The only naturally black pearls come from the black-lipped oyster Pinctada marguritifera, which is found in the tropical azure waters of French Polynesia. After harvesting, they’re traded and sold in Tahiti, which gives them their more common name Tahitian pearls.
Up until the 1960s, only rare, natural (uncultured) pearls were available commercially— harvested along with the shells themselves, which were used to make personal adornments such as buttons.
However, French Polynesian pearl divers learned from the recent trend in Japanese pearl culturing and began to harvest through controlled pearl farming. By the 1970s, they were beginning to export their gems worldwide, and a new fascination for the black pearl was born.
How are Black Pearls Formed?
The Pinctada marguritifera has a unique coloration not found in other pearl-producing oysters or mussels. It’s predominant body color is black, but it can also feature distinct washes of blue, green, or purple. It’s these oil slick overtones that make every black Tahitian pearl unique.
In the wild, a pearl is formed when an external irritant gets lodged in the oyster’s soft membrane. To isolate the irritant, the oyster begins forming layer upon layer of a mother-of-pearl substance called nacre. This builds up around the intrusion and becomes a pearl.
Pearl farmers try to imitate this wonder of nature by surgically inserting an irritant into the oyster’s membrane, usually a small bead made out of shell or plastic. This is called the nucleus. Then the oysters are diligently cared for and monitored while the nacre forms around it. This process can take between one and two years, sometimes longer.
Once harvested, black Tahitian pearls can display a stunning array of color. Many are black with overtones of blue, peacock green, pewter, or cherry. Some will be lighter in color, allowing vivid blue and green tones to shine through. Some Tahitian pearls are a beautiful stormy silver color blended with smoke greys or the pale green that’s often called “pistachio”.
Every single black pearl has its own unique characteristics, though they’re unified by their deep, high-contrast body colors and iridescent luster.
Can Other Pearls Be Black Too?
Tahitian pearls are the only ones with naturally black coloration. However, their popularity has led to a surge in imitations.
Both freshwater pearls and akoya saltwater pearls can be treated with dyes or radiation to resemble Tahitians. Irradiation treatment is stable and should not change or fade with time. Some dyed pearls might fade or chip, depending on the quality of the dyeing process.
Certainly, jewelry retailers are trying to come up with better and better ways to offer color alternatives, and the knowledge and technology they have is getting better every year. If you’re considering a dyed black pearl strand, ask the retailer if the color is expected to be stable and if it comes with any sort of warranty.
As well as being more affordable, black freshwater and akoya pearls are usually smaller, more approachable sizes. Black Tahitian pearls, like South Sea pearls, are quite large – going up to 20mm in diameter and almost never smaller than 10mm.
For more petite women, or for rings, these sizes might be too overwhelming. In these cases a color-stable treated black pearl might be a good option.
Black Pearl FAQ
Every pearl is as unique as a fingerprint. Most real pearls aren’t perfectly round or perfectly smooth; instead, they’ll have little variations in surface texture such as bumps, nicks, or off-round places. Even very high quality pearl strands will usually have some distinguishing characteristics that set it apart. Look for the distinctive “fingerprint” of your pearls.
Another good thing to look at is the drill hole through the pearl. Real pearls will have very minuscule holes, just large enough to fit the thread, while fake pearls will often have very wide ones. Since real pearls are wholesaled by weight, drilling a very small hole will retain more of the gem and more profit. If the hole takes up some significant real estate in your pearl, it’s probably a fake.
For more tips and tricks on how to authenticate your pearl jewelry, check out our guide to pearl identification here.
Black pearls are some of the rarest in the world, matched only by golden South Seas.
Unlike freshwater pearls, which mature quite quickly and in larger quantities, black-lipped oysters usually only produce one pearl at a time over a period of a few years. This means there are less of them entering the market.
In addition, the wide color range of Tahitian pearls means certain colors will always be more in demand and highly prized.
Like other pearl types, black pearls follow the GIA pearl grading scale of size, shape, luster, color, matching (or craftsmanship), surface quality, and nacre.
The best quality pearls will be perfectly round with smooth, unblemished surfaces, intense and eye-catching colors, and sharp, high-contrast reflections. Pearls that display all of these things equally will be priced according to size; large, high quality pearls will be more valuable than smaller ones.
However, a flawless, top quality pearl of a smaller size will almost always be more valuable than a larger one of low quality.
Tahitian pearls, as we’ve seen, are some of the rarest naturally-colored pearls on the gemstone market. Even though most pearls we see today have been cultured in pearl farms, there is only so much we can do to influence the growth of these magnificent jewels. The rest is left up to nature.
Their rarity, in addition to their startling range of extraordinary colors, means that black pearls will always be a prized jewelry collector’s item.
Naturally colored Tahitian pearls only come in sizes of 10mm and up, so if your pearl is any smaller than that right away you know it’s probably a treated freshwater or akoya pearl.
For larger pearls, you can look at the areas where dye will be most concentrated: around the drill hole, and any blemishes on the pearl’s surface. You’ll be able to see where the color has collected and is more intense.
However, color treatments on gems of all kinds are getting better and better all the time, so the only way to know for certain that your pearl is naturally colored is with documentation from a reputable jeweler (if they’re not willing to supply it, that’s a pretty good indication too), or to send it to a gemological laboratory to be tested.
Long thought of as a symbol of mystery and exoticism, black pearls are being worn by a new generation of strong, powerful women and men. The strand worn by Kamala Harris is thought to represent strength and triumph against a stigma generations in the making.
Black pearls can be proudly worn by anyone, but they’re an especially good choice for someone fighting their own personal battles against expectations and imposed limitations.
Coveted Treasures of the French Polynesian Seas
Black pearls have fought long and hard against marketing uncertainty for their place in the fine jewelry industry and are now one of the most valuable, sought-after gems in the world.
Originally a rogue player set against the classic, pristine white pearl strands, the mesmerizing color spectrum of black pearls have won over the hearts of both jewelers and consumers. Their colors represent the full spectrum of possibility churning under the pearl’s glossy surface.
Maybe wearing a decadent, deep-hued Tahitian black pearl can help unlock possibilities in us, too.
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