Anne here, and I'm talking about an addiction of mine — pearls. Last December, in a rush of blood to the head, I lashed out and bought myself some cultured pearls, on line. They arrived on my birthday, thus proving the universe approved of my extravagance. Here they are in the photo on the right. I haven't made them up into anything yet — I'm still deciding what to do with them.
When I was young, I never much liked plain creamy pearl necklaces. For me, they were a bit old fashioned, a bit too "tasteful" for the more hippy-inclined me. But then one Christmas I made the mistake of wearing an old necklace I'd bought from the op-shop (charity shop) — a cheap string of fake pearls interspersed with tinny gold medallions.
Dad was most unimpressed and from then on he was determined to buy me a "proper" pearl necklace. So one year for my birthday, he took me shopping for one. Nothing hit the spot for me until I spotted a necklace of small creamy pearls with chips of black onyx in between each pearl. I loved it. He thought was quite paltry, but he bought it for me anyway. That's it in the photo on the left. I love it still and I think of Dad every time I wear it.
Some years later I saw an advert for a one-day pearl knotting course and because I wanted to mend a broken necklace of Mum's, I signed up. Necklaces made with real pearls are usually knotted between each pearl with silk or acrylic thread. The knot prevents the pearls from rubbing against each other and wearing away the nacre. In the course, they gave us glass pearls to practise on.
A young jewellery apprentice was also doing the course, and in the lunch break she took me and another woman to a nearby wholesale gemstone supplier. It was like Alladdin's cave — not only were there masses of real pearls at a really affordable price, but also all kinds of gemstone beads. I bought several strings of beautiful cultured pearls and some semi-precious gemstones. And thus my addiction began… The first necklace I made myself was of white pearls interspersed with an occasional black bead and you can just see it in the photo of me on the wench site.
Contrary to popular belief, pearls are not usually caused by a grain of sand getting into an oyster or other bi-valve mollusc —it's more often a parasite or some small bit of organic matter — and the oyster deals with the irritant by coating it in successive layers of nacre. Nacre is the coating that you find inside mother-of-pearl shells. It's the build-up of many layers of nacre that causes the lustre or iridescence of a pearl.
Pearls come in a range of colors — as well as the usual cream, I bought quite a few in "lavender" — a kind of pink with lilac tones. Pearls rarely have one clear color, the nacre gives a slight rainbow effect, so the color can vary slightly, depending on the angle and the light. Black pearls, so called, can range from blackish to dark grey to "peacock" deep bluey-green and dark greeny-black.
Baroque pearls have all kinds of odd shapes. They used to be regarded as duds, but these days are very popular as a lot of jewelry designers love the different shapes and design unique and beautiful pieces around them. This is one of my favorite necklaces, made of blue-green (peacock) baroque pearls.
Another kind of pearl that was once regarded as a dud, but has grown in popularity in recent years is the keshi pearl, also known as "cornflake" pearls — and you can see why in the photo below.
Pearls in history
For most of history pearls were extremely rare and very expensive. That's because they were all formed naturally — so a perfect, beautifully-shaped pearl was a random accident of nature, discovered more or less by accident by a fisherman or pearl diver. They were also exotic, coming from far flung places in the world.
Being natural organic creations, no two pearls are exactly alike, so a string of matched pearls (of the ideal perfect round shape and graduated in size) was therefore worth a fortune. A few years ago, Nicola blogged about pearls and told us about a set of seven strings of matched pearls owned by Elizabeth of Bohemia. They'd come via the Medicis, were inherited by Mary Queen of Scots, and passed to Elizabeth by her father, James 1. Elizabeth used to pawn them whenever she was short of funds, and redeem them later. She later passed a strand each on to her daughters. To find out more of this fascinating story, read Nicola's blog here.
People liked to display their wealth in portraits, so we can see many of the pearl sets in old paintings. They didn't just wear pearls as jewelry, they were also used to adorn clothing. The portrait above is of Queen Elizabeth laden with pearls — in her hair, sewn onto on her clothes, around her neck, in her ears—and you can be sure they'll be s=ew onto her shoes as well. And it wasn't only women who loved and flaunted their pearls; here's George Villiers, the first Duke of Buckingham, practically smothered in pearls.
The stunning dress below, made of silk crepe, velvet, chiffon and tulle, and encrusted with pearls and embroidery, was made in 1889 in Paris by Maugas, whose clients included royalty and the nobility of Europe. The bride's father was a very successful Melbourne butcher, and this dress was obviously designed to demonstrate his success. The poor bride must almost have staggered under the weight of all those pearls.
In 1917, jeweler Pierre Cartier purchased the Fifth Avenue mansion that is now the New York Cartier store in exchange for a matched double strand of natural pearls that Cartier had been collecting for years; at the time, it was valued at US$1 million. (From Wikipedia)
Only kings and queens and a few mega-rich could afford masses of real pearls, so the race was on to produce faux pearls that would fool everyone. Because one needed to appear richly dressed, even if one couldn't afford it—perhaps especially if one couldn't afford it — appearances, then as now, were crucial to social success.
In the 17th century, a man called Jaquin of Paris patented a method of faking pearls. He made tiny glass balls that were hollow inside, filled them with wax to strengthen them and give them the right kind of weight, then lacquered them with a compound made of ground-up iridescent fish scales. His method was so successful that Paris became the centre for the production of fake pearls for more than 200 years.
Then in the early 20th century, the process of "culturing" pearls was developed by William Kent, a British scientist, living and working in Australia. The process was taken to Japan where it was further developed and commercially exploited by Mikimoto. Most if us will have heard of Mikimoto pearls, but a surpising number of people believe that Mikimoto pearls are fake pearls. This is quite wrong.
Cultured pearls — are they fake?
Actually, natural or 'wild' pearls and cultured pearls are both real pearls. The only way you can tell the difference between a natural or 'wild' pearl and a cultured one is by x-ray. The difference is that cultured pearls are a result of the "irritant" being inserted into the mollusc by human intervention, rather than accident. Otherwise the process is the same.
Freshwater or ocean pearls?
Still both real pearls. The difference is in the species of mollusc, and the kind of pearls they make, not in the process.
How to tell a real pearl from a fake one.
A good fake pearl and a genuine pearl will both feel and look very much the same. But gently rub them along the top of your teeth and you'll find that a genuine pearl will feel slightly gritty against your teeth, whereas the fake one will still feel perfectly smooth
The early fakes ranged in quality. A lot of old fake pearls you see in charity shops will show pearlescent paint peeling off plastic beads. These days glass pearls are widely available, cheap and available in all colors. Here are some I bought from a craft shop for $1 a string.
But cultured pearls are widely available, and can be bought on line, as I did, to make into whatever design you want. And these days, pearls are for everyone, not just the extremely rich, and you can make jewelry that's unique and personal. (If you'd like to see some more of the jewelry I've made click here.)
So, what about you — are you fond of pearls or not? Do you own any pearls? Have any pearl stories? Have I tempted you to try your hand at making your own pearl necklace? Or do you make other things that you can't buy in shops?