Philippine pearls are the classic fashion accessory. They exude elegance, sophistication, and luxury. At once, snapshots of Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” come to mind, the epitome of style in her iconic black dress and layers of pearls on her neck.
Or, closer to home, memories replay of nanay at her dressing table, putting on a modest pair of pearl earrings. My mom has worn hers every day for as long as I can remember. The pearl is barely bigger than my pinky, set in aging gold with a smaller, clear gemstone cradled beside it. My mom’s had these studs longer than she’s had me!
Whether you’re a Filipina exploring reconnection with your heritage, or simply a lover of pearls and jewelry, we’ve got everything you need to know right here.
In this ultimate guide, you’ll learn:
- The most common varieties of Philippine pearls
- Why pearls form such a big part of Philippine history and cultural significance
- How your Philippine pearls are grown and cultivated
- What to look for when choosing Philippine pearls
- How to know a baroque pearl when you see one, and why they’re unique
PS - looking to buy freshwater or South Sea pearls outside the Philippines? Check out our Philippine Pearl Jewelry Collection.
Philippine Pearls Are Leading The Way
If you or nanay bought pearls in the Philippines, chances are, they’re probably of the South Sea variety.
You see, the Philippine Islands are a world leader in pearl culture.
Local pearl farms mainly produce South Sea pearls from the pinctada maxima oyster. Though, Filipino jewelry-makers have also increasingly favored local freshwater pearls for their designs.
The Philippines’ South Sea pearls are one of the largest and rarest一thus most expensive一of the cultured pearls. It naturally occurs in shades of gold (or white) and can grow between 9 to 20 mm in size. That said, natural pearls much bigger than these have been found in the Philippines’ waters.
The History of Pearl Jewelry in the Philippines
The Pearl of Lao Tzu (1934), The Palawan Princess (2009), and The Pearl of Puerto Princesa (2016) are three of the world’s largest natural pearls. All three of these record-breaking gemstones made it on international news when they were discovered in the Philippines.
Even further back in history, pearls would be used to adorn Spanish colonial jewelry worn widely by mestiza and native Filipina women alike. Accessories like a creolla (earrings), pantoche (hairpin), and peineta (ornamental combs) were essentials worn every day.
As dissent against Spanish rule in the Philippines and a sense of nationalism stirred, the islands’ abundant gemstone emerged as a literary (if not national) symbol.
In his very last poem, “Mi Ultimo Adios” (1896), Dr. Jose Rizal crowned his beloved Philippines as the “Pearl of the Orient Seas”. A few years later, the newly independent republic claimed this title in the very first line of its national anthem.
Since then, every Filipino citizen, from school children to public officials to movie-goers, have been singing about the “perlas ng silanganan”. In 1996, the pearl was even designated by President Fidel Ramos as the National Gem and the pinctada maxima oyster graces the 1,000-Peso bill.
Growing Pearls in the Philippines
For today’s jewelry, most pearls you’ll find in the Philippines and worldwide are typically cultured pearls, meaning they were grown on a farm instead of collected in the wild.
Oysters create pearls in saltwater, while mussels produce them in freshwater. Both follow similar steps to cultivate.
First, the mollusks are matured in a nursery, then transferred to open waters to continue growing.
When the oyster or mussel is ready to produce pearls, a tiny particle is grafted onto the soft part of the mollusk, inside the shell to stimulate pearl growth.
Irritated by the foreign object, the oyster or mollusk creates a pearl sac around it. The particle disintegrates, then layers of nacre slowly build up over time. Also known as mother of pearl, nacre is a combination of crystallized calcium bicarbonate and the organic compound conchiolin. This is what gives pearls its unique luster and sturdy structure.
All in all, it can take up to 4 years before any pearls are fully formed! After the first harvest, an oyster can produce a second and even third pearl by undergoing the same process.
Pearl culture takes long-term commitment to aquatic life and their natural environment. To be conducive for pearl production, the water needs to be clean, rich in nutrients, and at a suitable temperature.
If you notice marks on your pearls, especially those from freshwater, they’re actually fish bites! This just tells you these were grown in a thriving habitat.
Cambio & Co.’s partner AMAMI sources their freshwater pearls from Halu Island (a.k.a. Bellatan Halu Island) in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao―the southernmost tip of the Philippines!
Choosing Philippine Pearl Jewelry Perfect For You
As every pearl is different, the same can be said of the way it’s appraised. Compared to diamonds, pearl farmers and vendors don’t have a universal or standardized grading system to evaluate the quality of their gemstones. Standards vary from one specialist to another.
Generally, you may find on the market that pearls are appraised following an AAA or A-D Grading System. A is the lowest rating while AAA is the highest. Some specialists will even go up to AAAA.
On the A-D scale, D is the lowest while A is the highest grade.
The Seven Value Factors to check closely are nacre, luster, surface, size, shape, origin, and color.
Nacre, as previously mentioned, is the material that pearls are made of and the reason they’re sturdy. Its quality and thickness affects the overall condition of a pearl.
The nacre of a high-caliber pearl is smoothly layered to reflect light beautifully, like a glow from within. Excellent luster refers to a pearl that is bright and shiny—the sharper the reflection, the better.
However, this also depends on the kind of pearl; South Sea and freshwater pearls are known to have a softer, satin-like finish to them compared to the mirror-like shine of an Akoya pearl.
Most familiar to us all might be the white pearl, but these organic gemstones actually come in different colors and overtones. Freshwater pearls occur in natural warm shades: champagne, dusty rose, mauve, peach, apricot, and lavender. While South Sea pearls are renowned for their silver-white or deep golden tone. Specialists look for a depth and saturation to the color.
A pristine surface is another marker of a high-quality pearl. It should be free from blemishes or imperfections. According to Pearls of Joy, flaws include abrasions (scratches and scuffs), spots, bumps, and wrinkles.
Nature tends to go its own way so pearls that are an ideal and symmetrical sphere are rare. The larger, the rarer, too. So shape and size influence a pearl’s price.
In the pearl industry, the closer to perfection a pearl is, the greater its value on the market.
Philippine Baroque Pearls Reflect The Beauty Of Nature’s “Imperfections”
Arete, another of Cambio & Co.’s partners in the Philippines, follows different rules. The ethical jewelry brand prefers to use baroque pearls. If, like Arete, you find beauty in imperfection, then you’ll love their jewelry.
A vast majority of pearls produced worldwide are not actually perfect spheres, they’re baroque. These organic gemstones are a result of nacre built up free form and irregular. Each one is completely unique.
There are coin pearls, a type of baroque pearl that’s round and flat. Light reflects on these pieces beautifully because of its surface area.
Potato pearls are the smallest type of baroque pearl. They can come in many different forms: square, round, or lumpy. Similarly, rice pearls are quite small, but like its namesake, have a more elongated shape.
There are many more variations of the baroque pearl according to shape: stick (or BIWA), twin, heart, teardrop, and leaf… just to name a few.
The ones that are slightly oblong, elongated globes are simply baroque pearls. They can be asymmetrical and uneven, with little dents and bumps. But that’s their beauty.
Arete sources their pearls from Cebu. They’re given only a bit of polish before being transformed into complete works of wearable art.
Looking to buy pearl and mother of pearl jewelry outside of the Philippines?
Check out some of our most beloved pieces.
Want to learn more about Filipino jewelry and craftsmanship?We published “The Island Woman’s Guide To Filipino Jewelry” for you! Claim your free copy here.
Nicolette is a Manila-based creative freelancer and Cambio & Co's Community Storyteller. She's written on the digital space about mom-and-pop's, small businesses, and social enterprises. In the pursuit of her eclectic interests, Nicolette has a broad portfolio including short videos, album art, and storybook illustrations! Find her on Instagram @of_nicolette and ofnicolette.wordpress.com
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