A symbol of purity, virtue and modesty, pearls are a sought-after natural material which makes pearl jewelry exceptionally popular. Technically known as “organic gems”, pearls are harvested from shellfish just as they have been for over 4,000 years. That said, much has changed in the millennia since the discovery of this natural treasure including the way pearls are harvested, how they are used in pearl jewelry and how that jewelry is worn. To get a strong understanding of what to look for when shopping for jewelry like pearl earring, bracelets and earrings, let’s consider: the basics of pearls, followed by the most popular form of pearl jewelry and finally how to select them.
For centuries, pearls have been a symbol of beauty and purity. Today, they are regarded as both classic and contemporary, coming in many more fashionable styles than your mother’s traditional strand of pearls. Learning about types of pearls is important when adding items to your jewelry collection.
Pearls, natural or cultured, are formed when a mollusk produces layers of nacre (pronounced NAY-kur) around some type of irritant inside its shell. In natural pearls, the irritant may be another organism from the water. In cultured pearls, a mother-of-pearl bead or a piece of tissue is inserted (by man) into the mollusk to start the process. For both, the quality of the nacre dictates the quality of the luster, or shine of the pearl, which is very important to its beauty and its value. The surface of the pearl should be smooth and free of marks while the overall shape could be round, oval, pear-shaped, or even misshapen. The misshapen pearls are called baroque pearls.
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Even though necklaces are the favored form of jewelry using pearls, there are still quite a few types. Here’s a quick description of each:
Bib: A Bib necklace consists of several strands of pearls of varying lengths.
Collar: Consisting of multiple strands of pearls, Collar necklaces were very popular during the Victorian era and are worn high on the neck. Most examples of this type of necklace are 12-13 inches long.
Choker: Similar to a collar necklace, a Choker is worn somewhat lower on the neck and is 14-16 inches long.
Princess: Recognized as the classic length for a pearl necklace, the Princess lies slightly below the neck. A versatile necklace, the Princess can be matched with many different styles of clothing with varying necklines. This type of necklace is 17-19 inches long.
Matinee: This style is routinely seen in more formal and semi-formal situation with both suits and dresses. The Matinee necklace is approximately is 20-24 inches long.
Opera: Falling below the bust line, the Opera necklace tends to be worn at formal occasions. For less formal occasions and daytime wear, the Opera can be knotted or the strand can be doubled over. This necklace is 30-36 inches long.
Rope: The longest of all pearl necklace styles, the Rope necklace can be doubled, as well as knotted to reduce its length of 36 + inches long.Clearly, some homework must be performed to find the right piece of pearl jewelry, but armed with this information your search should be much easier. Next, let’s look at pearl valuation and how to make a wise purchase decision.
Pearl Origin Classifications
Natural Pearls — are extremely rare. Historically, many were found in the Persian Gulf; unfortunately, today, most have already been harvested. You may be able to purchase small, natural pearls, but they will be costly.
Cultured Pearls — are grown in pearl farms. The mollusks are raised until they are old enough to accept the mother-of-pearl bead nucleus. Through a delicate surgical procedure, the technician implants the bead and then the mollusks are returned to the water and cared for while the pearl forms. Not all produce a pearl; and not all the pearls are high quality. Over 10,000 pearls may be sorted before a 16” single strand of beautifully matched pearls is assembled.
A fact about pearls is that they can be found in saltwater and in freshwater. There are also different types of mollusks that produce very different looking pearls.
Saltwater Pearls — these include the akoya cultured pearls grown in Japanese and Chinese waters. They range in size from 2mm (tiny) to 10mm (rare) and are usually white or cream in color and round in shape. Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines produce the South Sea pearl – the largest of all the pearls. They range in size from 9mm to 20mm and can be naturally white, cream, or golden in color. Tahitian pearls are interestingly not exclusively from Tahiti – they’re grown in several of the islands of French Polynesia, including Tahiti. Their typical sizes range from 8mm to 16mm. These naturally colored pearls are collectively called black pearls, but their colors include gray, blue, green, and purple.
Freshwater Pearls — these pearls are grown in freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds predominately in China. Although many are white and resemble the akoya cultured pearls in shape and size, they can also be produced in various shapes and in an array of pastel colors. Many freshwater pearls don’t have a bead nucleus — only a piece of tissue — resulting in a pearl with thicker nacre than the akoya.
Imitation pearls — are usually a coated glass bead. Most have a high luster, but not the depth of luster seen on high quality cultured pearls.