Pearls have been treasured by mankind for thousands of years. These beautiful spheres with gorgeous luster have been traded as currency and prized as some of the most valuable jewelry on the planet. They are revered in literature, adorn the bodies of royalty and celebrities, and conjure images of wealth and prosperity. Until the 20th century, these gemstones were only available as hard-won, natural products of the sea, which made them unattainable by anyone except the wealthy. Thanks to modern culturing and collection methods, genuine, beautiful pearls are now affordable for everyone.
History of Pearls
Long before recorded history, the first pearls were discovered in the ocean by humans looking for food. Later, as societies developed and systems of trade and currency evolved, they became elements of commerce and status. Pearls have been found in oceans around every inhabited continent and subsequently are present in history and folklore from around the world.
The historian Suetonius once wrote that a Roman general sold just one of his mother’s pearl earrings to fund an entire military campaign! In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra purportedly dissolved one in wine and drank it to prove she could consume the wealth of an entire nation, thus winning a bet with Mark Anthony.
In medieval times, knights would wear pearls into battle, believing the gems would keep them safe. The Chinese opined that a pearl began as the brain of a dragon and Hindu legends feature these lustrous gems in lessons of wealth and greed.
The ability to import pearls from the newly discovered Americas increased availability and with it, demand. Pearls grew in popularity during the 15th and 16th centuries as the ladies of nobility clamored for pearl jewelry to adorn their gowns, hair, necklaces and arms.
Today pearls are worn in much the same way; attached to elegant gowns, set in jewelry, strung on silk cord and attached to elegant hair adornments. While not used as a form of currency, some are of such value they are handed down from generation to generation.
What is a Pearl?
Pearls are considered gemstones, but unlike stones mined from the earth, they are created from a living being. Each starts as a small irritation, such as a parasite or piece of shell, that lodges inside the shell of a mollusk where it can’t be expelled. The animal produces a substance called nacre to surround the object and relieve irritation, similar to what your eye does when an eyelash or piece of dirt lodges under your eyelid. Over many years, the nacre builds up in layers, creating a lustrous pearl.
Chemically speaking, nacre is made of calcium carbonate crystals. The alignment of the crystals creates the beautiful shine you see on the outside of the pearl. While the material itself is called nacre, the iridescent shine is referred to as, “luster.” The thicker the nacre, the more beautiful the luster.
Types of Pearls
Pearls can be natural, or cultured. Both types are considered genuine, or real. From the outside, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference. Both are made of layers of nacre and share the luster that makes them prized among gemstones. The key difference between them is how they begin.
Natural vs. Cultured
Natural pearls are formed by accident and must be found at random. Early pearl harvesters learned to hold their breath for long periods of time while they dove beneath the surface of the ocean to retrieve oysters. The meat was used for food, but each shell was checked for the presence of a rare and beautiful gem. Finding a single large, round pearl could mean years of prosperity for a diver’s family.
Most natural pearls are actually baroque (irregularly shaped). Some are formed in unique shapes, making them all the more prized. The most valuable pearl known in modern times is called, “La Peregrina.” Over 500 years old, this teardrop-shaped stone was originally found by a slave in Africa and has been since been owned by centuries of nobility, including silver screen queen, Elizabeth Taylor. It last sold for over $11 million at auction.
Today most pearls are cultured. The process of culturing was invented in Japan in the early 20th century. Cultured pearls are formed after an oyster is injected with tiny pieces of tissue that act as a seed, replacing a naturally occurring object and encouraging a round shape. This process is called nucleation. Each oyster receives several dozen seeds, resulting in multiple pearls from each shell. It takes from two to seven years to reach full size. The only way to identify one which has been cultured from a natural pearl is by using an x-ray machine to see the center of the gem. In all other ways, they are identical to those found in nature.
Saltwater vs. Freshwater
Saltwater pearls are formed in oysters, which live in the world’s oceans. Freshwater pearls grow in bi-valve muscles in lakes, rivers and streams. Both are found naturally and cultured.
Some of the most stunning pearls come from oysters in the ocean. From bright white, yellow, pink, brown, black, green and purple tones, saltwater pearls come in a rainbow of colors. Prized black south sea pearls are called “peacock” because of the iridescent green tones overlaying the black. Delicate rose-toned Akoya’s, their most prized color, come from the waters of Japan.
Freshwater pearls typically form in pastel colors, from white to pale yellow and pink. When you see them in dark tones, they are most likely dyed to achieve their color. While dyeing is common, natural colors hold higher values.
Pearl Shapes & Sizes
Round pearls are treasured for necklaces. A jeweler might sort through 10,000 gems to find enough for a matching 16″strand. The most expensive feature consistently sized round pearls, or graduated stones, that reduce evenly in size from
the top of the necklace, down to a single, large pearl in the bottom center. Round pearls are also used for earrings, bracelets, and rings. Their consistent size makes them visually appealing and the smooth, rounded edges maximize luster.
Baroque pearls come in all shapes and can be strung on necklaces and bracelets, or used for earrings. These tend to be freshwater, though newer culturing methods are producing nicely round pearls from mussels as well. Baroque shapes include button (flatter on one side), potato (oblong), and rice (crinkled surface).
Some pearls grow on the inside of the animal’s shell, producing what’s called a “blister” or “mabe” (pronounced mah-bay) pearl, which is flat where it was attached. These can be used for earrings, or be set in precious metals as pendants or rings. Large mabe rings were popular in the mid 20th century and were often set in 14k or 18k gold bands.
Pearls are delicate and are best worn when or where damage is least likely to occur. This makes the necklace a popular choice, though you’ll find pearls in all kinds of jewelry. Because pearls are used as they are found and are not polished or cut, once damaged, they cannot be repaired.
Pearl necklaces are named by their length. Longer styles can double as bracelets when wound around the wrist.
- Collar necklaces, as their name suggests, sit right where a shirt collar would be. They are typically 14-15″
- Chokers can be up to 17″ in length and are a perennial classic because they can be worn with both high and low necklines.
- A Princess strand ranges from 17-20″ inches and is the most common choice because it works for multiple necklines and neck sizes.
- Matinee length sits at the top of the bustline and ranges from 20-26″
- Opera length necklaces run 32-47″ long. The length allows it to be worn multiple ways, including full length, doubled and knotted at the end.
- Rope necklaces are 54″ or longer. These sometimes come with clasps that can be removed to reconfigure the necklace into multiple styles.
Pearl rings can be elegant but should be worn for special occasions as they tend to incur damage easily. A number of styles are available including mabe, round solitaires, and cluster rings. Most pearl rings are set in gold, but more affordable sterling silver options are also available.
Studded pearl earrings nicely compliment a strand necklace and are available in round and button styles. You can find all shapes and sizes of pearls set in dangle earrings, threaded through hoops, wrapped in wires, and added as accents with other gemstones.
Genuine pearl earrings will be set in sterling silver or gold. A simple set of pearl earrings makes a versatile gift that will be worn for many years.
Bracelets & Anklets
Pearl jewelry made for wrists and ankles is most often created with cultured freshwater gems due to the likelihood of damage. Rice pearls are inexpensive and readily available as anklets. Pearl bracelets are often strung with gold or silver beads and a sturdy clasp.
Real Versus Faux Pearls
As discussed previously, “real” or “genuine” pearls are those formed inside the shell of an animal. These include natural and cultured, salt and freshwater. Even with the increased availability and reduced cost enjoyed in the last 100 years or so, faux, or imitation, pearls are still a much more affordable option and are found everywhere. From basic plastic beads, to branded fashion jewelry such as Monet, faux pearls come in every color imaginable.
Faux pearls are typically made with an artificial coating on top of glass or plastic. They are usually very consistent in size and color. Vintage faux pearls were frequently paired with rhinestones, either as an accent or on the clasp. As they age, the surface coating wears away, revealing the bead underneath. An expert can spot the difference with a few moments of inspection, but if you aren’t familiar, it can be hard to tell.
Characteristics of Genuine Pearls
- Real pearls are heavy. If the strand you are holding feels lightweight or hollow, it’s probably not real.
- Genuine pearls have no coating. Look at the hole where the pearl was drilled for stringing. If you can see a different type of surface just inside the hole, they are probably faux.
- Pearls from an oyster or mussel shell have variation. While expensive strands are matched, there is no such thing as a perfectly round pearl, let alone a full strand of them. You should also see differences from one to the next in their surface. Faux pearls tend to look identical to one another, such those in the picture above.
- Real pearls tend to have more expensive settings. It would make no sense to put a faux pearl in an 18K gold ring, or use a 14K gold clasp for a strand of imitations. You should also see hand-knotting between each pearl when the strand is genuine. Stones sliding loose on a string are a sure sign they are faux.
Having provided all those tips, the reality is that faux pearl makers and sellers sometimes work hard to fool you. Glass coated fauxs will be heavy, variation can be created via manufacturing, some faux necklaces are hand-knotted, and not all genuine pearls are set in precious metals or include precious metal fastenings.
The Tooth Test
While not foolproof, you can often identify fakes based on how they feel against your teeth. A word of warning – never pick up a seller’s pearls and put them in your mouth. The merchant will most likely ask you to pay for them at that point, real or not. This test is best used on jewelry you already own. Take a pearl and rub it against your teeth. While it felt smooth to your fingers, your teeth will sense it as feeling rough, like a high-grit sandpaper. Try this with one you know to be faux, feeling with both fingers and teeth so you know the difference. Do this gently as not to damage the pearls or your teeth! Note that with older fauxs, this test can rub the surface coating right off and into your mouth so be cautious.
Since identification of faux pearls can be so difficult, your best bet is to buy from a reputable seller. Look for stores and online sellers with good customer reviews and high ratings with consumer reporting agencies like the Better Business Bureau. Remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You’re not going to find an antique, natural pearl necklace for $100, nor are you going to find a genuine pearl in a $20 gold-filled ring. As with most things, you get what you pay for.
Consider the types and qualities of pearls you’ve learned about, along with their price ranges. Think about who you are purchasing for as well. If this is a gift for a bride-to-be, a lovely set of cultured saltwater pearls will become one of her treasured heirlooms. For a teenager, a set of cultured freshwater pearl earrings provides a reasonably priced gift that can be worn everyday without risking great loss.
Freshwater pearl necklaces make great bridesmaid gifts as well. Many are so beautiful, they are hard to tell apart from their more expensive saltwater counterparts. Good quality freshwater pearls will usually be paired with sterling silver, adding a bit of elegance, without the excessive cost of gold.
Pearls are considered one of June’s birthstones and as such, make a wonderful gift for anyone with a June birthday. Keep those June birthdays in mind year-round and think about pearls for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, anniversaries, and other special occasions. The 30th is considered the “Pearl Anniversary,” making a quality strand the perfect anniversary gift.
Care & Cleaning
Pearls, like most materials formed organically, are porous. This means that they can absorb and be damaged by harsh cleaners and chemicals. Their surface can be scratched or chipped, and if struck against a hard surface, they can be crushed or cracked into many pieces.
If you have pearl jewelry, you’ll want to take special care of it. Store these in separate containers. A drawstring bag of soft material is an excellent choice for necklaces and bracelets. Avoid putting pearls in the same container with other gemstones and precious metals. The prong of a ring, or the edge of another stone can easily cause irreparable damage.
Cleaning solutions designed just for pearls are available inexpensively online and in stores. You can run them under water and wipe them with a soft cloth as an alternative to a prepared solution, but never use any kind of hand, body, or dish soap as these can be drying or leave residues.
With proper care, your pearl jewelry will be treasured by your children, and their children, for many years to come.
Things Grandma Kept features vintage salt and freshwater pearl jewelry, as well as a line of heirloom quality, modern freshwater pieces. With their rich history, folklore, elegance and value, pearls are both beautiful and fascinating. They make wonderful gifts for women and girls of all ages, and like gemstones and precious metals, they are perennial favorites that are just as wearable today as they were hundreds of years ago.