All about pearls

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Compared to flashy stones such as diamonds, rubies and emeralds, pearls are often considered to be the understated gem. This was not always the case throughout history. From ancient Greece and India to medieval Europe, natural pearls were so highly valued for their beauty and rarity that only the nobility and wealthy citizens could afford them.

It wasn’t until cultured pearls were introduced in the 20th century that pearl jewelry became available to a much wider segment of the population. Today, the pearl is the birthstone for the month of June and the gemstone for the third and thirtieth wedding anniversaries, testimony to the gem’s universal appeal.

The birth of a pearl
In order to understand the difference between natural and cultured pearls, let’s start with the birth of a pearl. In the natural environment, pearl formation begins when a particle of organic material wedges into the shell of a mollusk. This irritant causes the mollusk to secrete layers of mineral covered by a strong, iridescent material called nacre. Mollusks that can form pearls include pearl oysters in the sea and pearl mussels in freshwater. Natural pearls come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are rarely perfectly round.

Before the 1900s, all pearls were found in the wild by pearl divers. Natural pearls are not common, and a diver typically needs to open hundreds of oysters or mussels to discover a single pearl. This all changed when Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a Japanese noodle maker, began to farm pearls by introducing a piece of tissue into an oyster shell. Soon Mikimoto was able to produce perfectly round “cultured” pearls on demand. Over a period of decades, Mikimoto and other Japanese companies made cultured pearls affordable and available throughout the world.

A pearl’s value
The value of a pearl is determined first by its origin, with natural pearls being rarer and more expensive than cultured pearls. Besides origin, there are several quality factors that determine a pearl’s value: size, shape, luster, surface quality and color. In terms of size and shape, the larger and rounder the better. High luster, which is the amount of light a pearl reflects, increases the value of a pearl. Surface quality, which refers to the lack of scratches, abrasions and irregularities that mar the appearance of the pearl, also plays a part in determining value.

Current fashion dictates which pearl colors are most in demand. Both natural and cultured pearls come in a wide range of hues, from white, cream and pastel to cool shades of blue, violet and black. In addition to a base color, some of the most valuable pearls have a translucent overtone or iridescent shimmer that adds to the gem’s value and allure.

Pearl strand choices
Like color, the length of a strand of pearls is a personal choice that is often influenced by fashion. The shortest lengths are choker (16 inches) and princess (18 inches). These two length are frequently combined to create a youthful, casual look. Longer strand lengths, including matinee (22 to 24 inches) and opera (30 to 32 inches), make a more formal and dramatic statement. These longer strands are more versatile, since they can be worn long or doubled or tripled around the neck.

Caring for your pearls
Although pearls are composed of minerals, they are a bit more fragile than other gemstones. Cosmetics, perfume and hairspray can dull a pearl’s luster, so always put on pearls after applying makeup and styling your hair. After wearing, wipe pearls with a clean, soft cloth to remove body oil and perspiration. Since pearls are subject to scratching, they should be stored separately in a lined jewelry box or soft pouch.

Storing pearls for long periods of time in an airtight container can lead to dehydration, brittleness and cracking. This is why most jewelers recommend wearing pearls and exposing them to fresh air and natural humidity as often as possible. Just don’t wear them in a hot tub or swimming pool or while doing housework, since some common household chemicals and cleaning products, including chlorine and ammonia, can damage pearls.

A strand of pearls should be taken to a jeweler for restringing if signs of wear are detected. Be sure to ask the jeweler to knot the string between each pearl in order to keep the pearls from rubbing against each other. The knots will also help avoid losing pearls should the string break. If you have a pearl necklace with multiple strands, most jewelers will recommend restringing all strands at the same time regardless of wear.

If treated with care by following these tips, a strand of high-quality pearls will last a lifetime and can be handed down from one generation to the next. HLM

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