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What is it That is Special About Pearls When You Look at Them?

I’m sure you wouldn’t want us to start telling you what it is that you find so attractive in pearls! You probably know that yourself.

However, what I would like to do is to spend a few minutes talking about one aspect of this wonderful bounty of nature – and that’s its luminescence.

We all often speak of a pearl’s lustre and its luminescence. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect.

If you think back to those science lessons at school, “luminescence” is defined as the light-emitting qualities of an object. That is, something that emits light or shines other than via heat.

So, some old watch hands glow in the dark because they were painted with a radioactive substance. That’s luminescence, as is the light emitted by some sorts of animals when created by chemical reactions in their bodies.

You’ll probably be pleased to know that pearls are not radioactive! Yet even so, they seem to glow when looked at. What’s causing that?

The scientists tell us that it’s something different called “lustre” combined with “iridescence”.

The lustre of a pearl is very important and it’s a large factor in deciding the desirability (and therefore price) of an individual pearl. It’s something that describes how a pearl can absorb and reflect light in various ways, showing multiple swirls of colour and tones. Luminescence also plays a role in variations in how light is reflected.

Again, the scientists have explanations for that too. They’ll tell you it’s all to do with the way the nacre has been laid down and the tiny individual variations in that on a pearl-by-pearl basis.  Fair enough……but…..

The fact is that for all that, pearls just seem to “glow” of their own accord.  They have an almost innate ability to look light-emitting and to draw the eye in as a result.

So, they are or appear to be, luminescent. Is that a correct scientific use of the word or technically accurate? Probably not but it is certainly a reality and one that makes pearls so attractive to look at – even if there’s no obvious scientific explanation! 

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