Surface, Size and Shape

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

The Rough Exterior

Because a pearl is the product of a biological process, its surface often shows minor imperfections. Furthermore, when a mollusk secretes the microscopic layers that make up a pearl, each layer does not always encircle the entire pearl. These uneven layers create additional irregularities on the surface. As a result, it is easy to distinguish a real pearl from an artificial one by rubbing it gently across your teeth: a real pearl will feel gritty and an artificial pearl will feel smooth and slippery.

A Perfect Pearl?

Pearls come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. And although most people think of pearls as round, the truth is that irregularly shaped pearls are more common in nature, while perfectly spherical pearls are extremely rare. A pearl's size and shape depend on the species of mollusk that produced the pearl, how long it took to form, the size and shape of the nucleus and where the pearl formed inside the animal. Pearl farmers increase their chances of obtaining large, round pearls by using large, perfectly spherical nuclei. Even so, there are no guarantees. A pearl's size and shape reflect such variables as the temperature and chemistry of the water, as well as the health of the mollusk.

Corsage pin with butterfly Cultured pearls, yellow sapphires, frosted crystal, diamonds, platinum, white goldUnited States/Italy, 1999
Ella Gafter for Ellagem, New York

This brooch, created by American designer Ella Gafter, incorporates Australian pearls from Silver-lipped Pearl Oysters, which produce some of the largest cultured pearls today.