Pearls are a wonderful natural organic gemstone, and with proper care they will last a lifetime and beyond! A pearl necklace is often chosen as the ultimate touch of luxury for an evening outfit, or an everyday sign of elegance.
The History of Pearls
Pearls have been valued throughout history as nature’s most beautiful organic treasure. The oldest pearl necklace ever found dated to 350BCE, and was found in the tomb of a Persian princess. It was incredibly degraded, and parts of it crumbled away at the slightest touch.
It is said that Cleopatra once drank a pearl dissolved in vinegar to win a bet with Marc Anthony that she could consume a single meal worth ten million sesterces. After a great feast, she dropped one of her pearl earrings, which were said to be the largest pearls in the world, into a cup of vinegar and drank it.
Natural pearls are very rare - only one in ten thousand oysters contain a natural gem-quality pearl - so in historical times pearls were incredibly highly valued. In ancient Rome, they were a sign of the ruling class, and in 1BCE, Julius Caesar passed a law that only the ruling classes could possess them.
Types of Pearls
There are four main types of true pearls available today. They can vary greatly in colour and price.
The most common and easily produced pearl type is the freshwater pearl, grown in rivers and lakes across China. They are very widely available and usually very reasonably priced. They come in natural colours ranging from white to pink, cream, yellow and purple, and can also be dyed vibrant colours.
Akoya pearls are the most common saltwater pearl, produced in the waters of Japan and China. They are almost always spherical. They are produced by the smallest pearl-producing oyster in the world, so Akoya pearls are usually around 7mm, with the largest not exceeding 12mm. They are mostly found in white to grey tones, with pink, green or silver overtones. They are most well-known for being the oldest type of cultured pearl in the world, and also for their amazing lustre. Akoya pearls are more affordable than Tahitian or South Sea pearl, but more valuable than freshwater pearls.
Tahitian pearls are very distinctive in their grey/purple/blue/green colouring, although they can also come in lighter and white tones. Although they are referred to as black pearls, their colouring covers a spectrum of beautiful shades. Tahitian pearls are grown in the black-lipped oyster, which can grow as long as 25cm and weigh more than 1kg, so the pearls that are produced are much larger than Akoya pearls, ranging from about 8mm-18mm in size.
The fourth and rarest type of pearl is the South Sea Pearl, which comes in tones from white through to a beautiful golden colour. As they are grown in the biggest pearl-producing oyster in the world, they are generally the largest pearls available, ranging from 8mm-20mm. The white South Sea pearl is the most expensive pearl type on the market closely followed by the golden South Sea pearl.
Another ‘pearl’ we stock, which is not a true pearl but is still truly beautiful, is the New Zealand Paua pearl. These are cultured pearls formed in an unhinged mollusc, the New Zealand Paua or Abalone, so they are always blister-type pearls. Set in gold or silver, these iridescent gems are eye-catching and unusual.
Caring for Your Pearls
Pearls are organic gemstones, made of layers of nacre laid down by the oyster (or paua) to protect themselves from the irritant nucleus inside them. Because they are made of organic material, they require special care and attention to keep them beautiful and strong.
Pearls are easily damaged by sweat, perfume, and makeup. Make sure you wipe them over gently with a dry cloth every time you wear them.
Follow the ‘last on, first off’ rule! Pearls are the last thing you put on to finish off an outfit - after you have applied makeup, perfume, hairspray etc - so they aren’t damaged by any of these substances. They are the first thing you take off at the end of an event - so they don't get snagged in your clothing or caught in your hair.
Pearls last best if they are worn frequently so they don’t dry out, but make sure you take them to the jeweller at least once a year to see if they need re-stringing. Body oils are good for the pearls but not for the silk they are threaded on!
Store your pearls flat - they may look gorgeous hanging from a hook or on a jewellery tree, but this can stretch the silk a pearl necklace is threaded on, so make sure you store them flat in a fabric-lined tray or box. Don’t seal them in plastic though, as they can dry out and crack.
Types of Pearl Jewellery
This is the classic piece of pearl jewellery, and a beautiful heirloom to pass down the generations. Pearl necklaces can be made of evenly sized, round pearls, or they can be graduated, interspersed with other types of bead, or even utilise unusually shaped baroque-type pearls. Each of these has their fans and each is uniquely beautiful.
Pearl Drop Pendant
These are usually single pearls suspended on gold or silver necklaces. They combine the luxury of pearls with the understated look of a small pendant, and are popular gifts.
Pearl rings are beautiful adornments, but not meant for everyday wear. They are easel scratched, so you should never wear them while in the garden! Great care needs to be taken with them as they are cemented into place on the ring, and water and soap can erode the cement over time, so it’s best to take the ring off before washing your hands. A pearl ring is a stunning addition to the jewellery box of the person who has everything!
Pearl earrings come in two main varieties - studs and drops. Pearl studs sit on a post close to the ear, and are a very classical look common in the 1940s and 1950s, perfect for the vintage lover in your life. Pearl drops hang on sterling silver or gold hooks from the ears and are a more modern look.