Let’s take this all back to the basics, shall we? This is our definitive Glam Confidential Guide To Pearls. Pearls 101, if you prefer.
What Are Pearls?
Simply put, pearls are “a dense variously colored and usually lustrous concretion formed of concentric layers of nacre as an abnormal growth within the shell of some mollusks and used as a gem”. Doesn’t sound very glamorous, but there it is, as described by science.
To go into a little more detail (as this is a comprehensive pearl guide, after all), pearls are natural gemstones produced inside the shells of oysters and mussels as a very glamorous defence mechanism. It may be triggered by a parasite, a tiny piece of shell or when the outer shell is knocked and damages the mollusk internally.
What is a myth, however, is that a gain of sand or speck of grit is what starts off the pearl process – this is extremely rare in the wild. (Of course, pearls themselves are extremely rare in the wild! In times gone by, people believed them to be the tears of deities or droplets of moonlight that were consumed by oysters – a romantic, if unfortunately false, notion.)
Once the potentially threatening irritant is introduced into the mollusk, the defense mechanism kicks in, and the oyster starts to coat it with nacre – the shimmering substance you find on the inside of shells, also known as mother-of-pearl. It looks smooth but is actually formed of tiny crystals – hence the shimmer.
Due to the rarity of wild pearls (which are often not spherical anyway), the art of culturing pearls has been perfected over the last century. But we will come to that shortly! First, let’s take you through all the different types of pearls out there.
The Many Different Types of Pearls
Natural pearls are incredibly rare and thus are the most valuable pearls in the world. They are formed, as described above, when a foreign body enters a mollusk shell – it’s a defence mechinism. In a wild pearl, the composition is almost entirely nacre, except for the tiny bit of other matter in the very centre – often it’s not detectible.
Natural pearls are not as symmetrical as cultured, they are also rarely found these days – partly because mollusks’ natural habitats are being destroyed. Vintage or antique jewellery is likely to be made from natural pearls.
Technically, these are still ‘natural’ in composition, but are essentially man-made pearls. Using a process that was carefully perfected in the early 1900s by the Japanese, an irritant is introduced into a mollusc shell – often a rounded piece of shell itself or a spherical bead – and the same process begins as in a wild pearl. They are indistinguishable from natural pearls from the outside, but lower quality cultured pearls may have very thin nacre layer.
Saltwater vs Freshwater pearls
Back in the early days of pearl culturing, freshwater pearls always came out shaped like irregular grains of rice and became synonymous with lower quality. The Chinese perfected freshwater perliculture after WWII, however, and now create pearls using a tiny piece of tissue that is virtually undetectable in the finished pearl.
They are almost 100% nacre and almost indistinguishable from natural pearls, even under X-ray. Saltwater cultured pearls, on the other hand are ‘beaded’, when a small polished sphere of mussel shell is inserted into another mussel or oyster, and used to kickstart the process. We know which we prefer! And, as a bonus, freshwater pearls are greener to make and free of the pollutants you can find in the oceans, too.
Coloured pearls (Black and Pink)
Pearls come in a variety of colours, from purest white to black, although in reality, ‘black’ pearls are more often dark blue, green, grey, purple or teal – most often, green! Usually, black pearls have been dyed or treated. The variety of natural colours is mainly down to to the different breed of oyster, mussel or clam.
Other influences include the creatures’ diets, water temperature and pollutants in the area. No-one can predict or control what colour pearls will be produced in any hatchery and shells often contain multiple shades of pearls.
The most common colours are white/silver, peach and pink or lavender/grey shades.
We would never, ever encourage anyone to buy a faux pearl item when a real pearl necklace is whole worlds apart. Beware of any pearls sold as ‘simulated’,’faux’ or even ‘semi-cultured’. Good imitations can be tricky to spot. Usually, they’re are made from glass, ceramic or crushed shell and coated with varnish or laquer for shine and even ground fish scales for iridescence.
Often, you cannot tell the difference with a naked eye. Here’s a technique to test a pearl’s authenticity… but you might not be able to do this in a shop!
Gently rub the pearl under the cutting edge of your top front teeth. DO NOT bite it. Real pearls will feel slightly rough or gritty due to nacre’s crystalline structure. An imitation pearl will feel smooth. Do note that this is by no means an infallible test.
If a pearl is a perfectly round sphere, it is likely to be fake or very poor quality – not even cultured pearls with large starter beads remain perfectly round after the layers build. Beware of very large pearls, too. If a pearl is cracked or peeling around the drill holes, it’s not necessarily fake but likely to be very low quality.
Our advice is simple – read a pearl guide (or several), and choose a reputable retailer to avoid any chance of being stung by fakes!
A Brief History of Pearl Necklaces
Throughout history, countless references to pearls can be found in the religions and mythology of cultures from the earliest times. The ancient Egyptians chose to take them to the afterlife and were buried with them. The most famous story about pearls may be when Cleopatra dissolved a pearl earring in wine and drank it, purely to win a wager with Mark Antony that she could consume the wealth of an entire nation in just one meal. Antony declined to imbibe the other pearl and paid up.
Pliny, the world’s first gemologist, noted that that the two pearls were worth an estimated 60 million sesterces together, the equivalent of over 9 million dollars in today’s money. Another historian Suetonius, wrote that the Roman general Vitellius financed an entire military campaign by selling a single pearl earring – his mother’s.
There are records of pearl jewellery worn by the nobility in Ancient Rome and Greece, during the Dark Ages and in the royal courts of the Renaissance period. Legend has it that a number of European countries actually passed laws forbidding anyone but the nobility to wear them.
The discovery of pearls in the New World fired up the wealthy Europeans of the 15th and 16th centuries. That’s when La Peregrina, the most famous pearl of all time, came into the world. added to the wealth of Europe. Unfortunately, greed and lust caused the American pearl oysters to become almost extinct by the 17th century. From then, until the early 1900s, natural pearls were excruciatingly rare and thus accessible only to the rich and famous.
In 1916, Jacques Cartier made history by buying his landmark store on Fifth Avenue, New York by trading two pearl necklaces, one of which was worth $1million. Forty years later it was auctioned for only $157,000 – a legacy of pearl culturing.
Nowadays, ordinary people can indulge in beautiful pearl jewellery as culturing has made them accessible and affordable. But no less beautiful!
How to Care for Pearls
Pearls are organic and therefore are vulnerable to acid, alkalis, alcohol, biological washing products and moisture. Avoid letting them come into contact with cosmetics, hair spray, or perfume – always put them on as a last, finishing touch (ignoring Coco Chanel) and take them off first. We advise you to wipe them with a soft cloth in the case of any persiration, though we realise women do not sweat, they only glow…
Despite what we just said, though, pearls can actually dehydrate if not worn regularly, so make sure you put them on regularly – they are truly ‘meant to be seen’ and after all, they go with everything! Be careful not to get your pearls wet or go swimming in them (or steam rooms/saunas) and avoid sunbathing in them for myriad reasons – sunlight can fade pearls, perspiration can damage them and the sunscreen you should be wearing can also do harm.
If you spill anything acidic like alcohol, fruit juice or vinegar, any detergents or anything else at all on your pearls, wipe them clean immediately,
Don’t allow your precious pearls to become tangled in a jewellery box, or worse, scratched by harder objects. Our pieces come in a velvet-lined box for you to store them in, alternatively you could use a jewellery box with compartments or keep your pearls in a jewellery pouch when travelling.
It is recommended that pearls are regularly restrung, that said, our pearls are double-knotted by hand on sturdy string, so you shouldn’t need to do it too reguarly. Be wary of overstretching your pearl jewellery and if any frays appear, get them restrung by a professional right away.
We don’t want any pearl bead casualties or comedy movie slipping mishaps!
The Many Different Types of Pearl Necklaces
This short style wraps around the throat and is often a multiple strand affair. Wear pearl collar necklaces with v-necks and wide scoop-necked or Bardot-style tops or dresses, as well as strapless numbers. Save this style for parties!
Despite its name, this style is slightly longer than the collar, sitting at the base of the throat (on the collarbones) as a single or multiple strand and also looks lovely with wide necklines and off-shoulder tops or dresses. Can also dress up a casual collared shirt!
Like the name suggests, think Hollywood royalty – a necklace that sits just below the collarbone. Elegant and timeless – wear it with low and high necklines alike. It’s a more understated style, somehow – buy a pearl set with a necklace and bracelet for ultimate versatility.
A little longer than the Princess, wear it with most necklines, including asymmetrical ones – it will complement most outfits, especially red carpet glamorous ones!
Longer still, an opera-length string of pearls will reach the breastbone and works well with very high-necked dresses.
The Rope is part necklace and part experiment! You can wear it long (it’s any length longer than Opera), knot it or coil it to make any of the shorter lengths and therefore pair it with any of the styles or necklines above!
How to Buy Pearl Necklaces
- The first thing to consider, of course, is the outfit(s) you plan to wear with the pearls. Consider the colour, cut and neckline of your top or dress. A pearl set with different pieces is great for mixing and matching with lots of outfits.
- We always like to say that pearls go with everything, but not every length or type of pearl necklace goes with every style of outfit. There’s nothing to stop you having lots of different types of course!
- After you’ve picked the perfect length, next, consider the colour. Classic white or creamy pink? Black or silver? A combination of lots of shades? We do them all.
- There’s also the shape to take into consideration – classic spherical (or close to) pearls will be timeless, but irregularly-shaped pearls have a unique beauty and are popular in these modern days. Choose something to suit your own personality, as well as your style.
When buying pearls as gifts, it’s best to err on the side of classic and go for a real pearl necklace in a Choker or Princess length. We truly don’t believe you can go wrong!
What about the pearls themselves?
Pearl Grading takes into account shape, lustre, surface quality, nacre thickness and size matching. There is no internationally set grading standard for grading pearls so it does vary. We use only A1 quality round pearls, but also a variety of shapes like Baroque, rice-shaped and quirky irregular. Other shapes include Drop, Ovals and Circles.
We covered pearl colours above, but as a good rule of thumb, choose your colour based on skin tone. On fair or light colored skin, rose overtones compliment and black contrasts, while women with darker and olive skintones look wonderful in white and cream pearls. But really, we think they suit everyone, whatever the colour – skin or pearl!
When buying online, turn to a trusted supplier (after reading a helpful pearl guide…). If buying in person, examine it in daylight, rather than artificial or fluorescent light. Look at the lustre and the colours: expect small variations in colour and tone but if it looks lustrous, with a good shine and not too much difference between the shade and size of the pearls, you have a great piece!
How to Wear Pearls
We want to start this last section by stating again, for the record, that pearls go with everything, all the time. Now we’ve got that sweeping statement out of the way, here are some suggestions of ways to wear them if you don’t want to rock it twenty-four/seven.
Of course, pearl necklaces and bracelets should always accompany red carpet glamour. Just look to the starlets of today for inspiration on accessorising dramatic evening gowns! Quirky kitten Zooey Deschanel has gone perfectly old-school with a single-strand pearl choker and matching bracelet.
Dressing up a simple pair of jeans and a crisp white tshirt with pearls is a wonderful way of bringing a touch of glamour to your every day life. For work, weekends and leisure – it’s all good with us and provides a focus for a simple but stunning outfit. Blogger Rach Parcell has kept her other accessories fairly subtle – a gold bracelet and watch to keep attention on the pearls.
Need we say any more? There’s literally no way pearls could be more perfectly suited to weddings. Choose white, silver or creamy colours and drift down the aisle to your dream future. A flower crown of real, pure white roses would be a simply stunning pairing with layered pearl necklaces for a wedding look.
Never have costume parties and vintage clothing been more popular! Vintage pearls can be extremely expensive, but the designs haven’t changed in generations for a very good reason – there’s nothing that can be improved upon!
Ropes of pearls look just as good in 2014 as they did in 1924. This flapper model has a multiple strand pearl bracelet and a slave bracelet too – so chic!
Throw out the rule book!
Jennifer Lawrence is wearing her delicate pearl string backwards, because why not? You’re only limited by your imagination! Go wild and create your own looks with a simple long rope of pearls.
And that concludes our comprehensive guide to pearls. Let us know if you have any questions we didn’t cover! And happy pearl buying.