Legend has it that Cleopatra dissolved a large pearl in a glass of wine and drank it to impress Marc Antony with her wealth and power - a ploy that worked all too well. Knights in the Middle Ages wore pearls onto the battlefield to protect themselves from harm. Queen Elizabeth I so loved the white gems that she had them sewn on all her clothing and wore ropes of them around her neck. In addition to its fascinating beauty, the pearl occupies a unique spot in the world of precious gemstones. Instead of being found in a core of rock, a pearl is made over time by a living creature, an oyster.
Prized by man, the pearl begins its life as an irritant to the oyster. To protect itself, the oyster coats an intruding object or grain of sand with nacre, a crystalline substance that builds up over time, resulting in a shimmering, iridescent creation. The culturing process developed by man mimics nature. Pearl farmers implant a fine bead into the oyster where it cannot be expelled. The oyster does the rest and creates its lustrous masterpiece.
Types of Pearls
Akoya - This is the most familiar type of pearl sold in necklaces. Akoyas from Japan and China are grown in pearl oysters and are known for their shimmering beauty and warm colors which range from rose, cream and gold to silvery white and blue/gray.
South Sea - Large (10mm and up) cultured pearls grown in tropical and semi-tropical oysters in the South Seas and around the coast of Australia. Their color ranges from silvery white to gold; they are quite costly due to their size and rarity.
Tahitian Black - Large (10mm and up) cultured pearls grown in black-lipped oysters in French Polynesia. Colors range from silvery gray and green to deep purple and black. Their large sizes and unique colors command premium prices.
Mabe - Large, hemispherical cultured pearls grown against the inside shells of oysters rather than in the oysters' bodies. Less expensive than round cultured pearls due to their half-round shape, they are most popular in earrings, rings and brooches.
Freshwater - Pearls cultivated in mussels, not oysters, in freshwater lakes and rivers in China, Japan and the United States. Due to their easy cultivation, freshwaters are fairly inexpensive. Shapes can be freeform, rice shaped, off-round or spherical and colors range from milky white, to peach, pink, and lavender.
Keshi - Also known as seed pearls, these tiny pearls can be as small as a grain of sand and form accidentally in many cultured pearl oysters.
Baroque - Cultured pearls that are irregularly-shaped, yet often lustrous and appealing. Due to their shapes, baroque pearls are often less costly than round, cultured pearls.
How To Buy Cultured Pearls
When purchasing a piece of cultured pearl jewelry, it's best to buy pearls from a knowledgeable, professional jeweler who can explain how to make the most of your purchase and ensure that you are getting the best quality cultured pearls within your budget. But always remember that the better the quality of pearls you select, the more valued they will be over time. Use the following quality factors to evaluate any piece of cultured pearl jewelry.
Lustre - A combination of surface brilliance and a deep glow that seems to emanate from within the heart of a pearl. The lustre of a good quality pearl should be bright, not dull, enabling you to see your own reflection clearly on the surface of a pearl. A pearl that appears too white, dull or chalky indicates poor quality.
Surface - Since cultured pearls are grown by oysters in nature, it is rare to find a pearl whose surface is free from any type of blemish. Blemishes can include disfiguring spots, bumps, pits and cracks on the surface of a pearl. The fewer blemishes on the surface of a pearl, the more valuable it will be.
Shape - It is very rare to find a perfectly round pearl, but generally, the rounder the pearl, the more valuable it is. Cultured pearls also come in oval, pear and baroque shapes.
Color - Cultured pearls come in a wide range of colors from pink to black. While the color of a pearl is often a matter of personal preference, people with fair skin tend to look best in slightly pink or silvery white pearls, while cream and golden pearls look best on those with darker complexions.
Size - Cultured pearls are measured by their diameter in millimeters. They can be smaller than one millimeter, in the case of seed pearls, or as large as 20 millimeters for a big South Sea pearl. With all other quality factors being equal, the larger the pearl, the more valuable it will be since it is difficult for an oyster to grow a pearl larger than five millimeters. The most popular size of pearls sold around the world is about seven millimeters.
Matching - When buying a strand of cultured pearls, matching is very important. All the pearls in a good quality strand should be evenly matched in terms of luster, surface, shape, color and size. Well-matched pearl necklaces command top prices because pearl growers must harvest about 10,000 oysters in order to find enough pearls that match closely enough to make up a simple, 16-inch strand.
Selecting a Cultured Pearl Necklace
Choose your cultured pearl necklace based on your appearance, personality and style. For example, short necklaces are best with long necks; longer lengths tend to slenderize and elongate the body. Fair-skinned women look best in rose-hued pearls, deeper skin tones are more flattered by cream or golden hues. Let your expert jeweler customize a necklace so its proportions and color are exactly matched to yours. Use this guide to necklace lengths and terminology:
Choker - A necklace 14 inches to 15 inches in length that rests on the collarbone.
Princess - An 18-inch necklace strung with either graduated or uniform pearls.
Matinee - A slightly longer necklace, usually 20 to 24 inches in length.
Opera - A 30- to 36-inch necklace, this length should fall to the breastbone and can often be worn long or doubled.
Rope or sautoir - Any necklace longer than opera length. Ropes are often worn knotted or with a shortener for added versatility of style.
Dog collar - A multiple strand pearl necklace that fits closely around the neck.
Bib - A single necklace with multiple strands of pearls of varying lengths that are worn nested together.
Torsade - A necklace in which several strands of pearls (usually freshwater) are twisted together and held with a special clasp.
Graduated - A necklace with pearls of gradually increasing size with the smallest at the back and the largest at the center.
Uniform - A necklace in which all pearls appear to be the same size, although there is usually a slight difference between the center and end pearls.
Your Cultured Pearl Wardrobe
Begin your pearl wardrobe with a matching pearl necklace, earrings and bracelet. The necklace can be lengthened to a rope or sautoir by letting your jeweler match new pearls to the size and color of existing ones or it can be updated with a pendant or jeweled clasp. Add a ring, pin or earrings set with dramatic mabé pearls or South Sea pearls. Or, consider a long cultured pearl strand with several invisible clasps that allow it to be worn in different lengths or combined with a matching bracelet. Go for high drama with a ring or earrings set with one white pearl, one black.
Caring for Your Cultured Pearls
Remember that cultured pearls are precious jewels and should always be treated as such.
Don't toss them in a purse or jewelry box where they can become scratched by metal or stones.
Do treat your pearls gently; keep them in a chamois bag or wrap them in tissue when you put them away.
Don't expose pearls to acid-based hair sprays, cosmetics or perfumes, or clean them with chemicals or abrasives.
Do wash them with mild soap and water when you take them off. This will remove any traces of hair spray or perfume.
Always have pearls strung with a knot between each pearl to avoid abrasion and to prevent loss if the string should break. Be sure to bring your pearl necklace to your jeweler for restringing once a year, as cosmetics and ordinary wear can damage or stretch the nylon threads on which the pearls are strung.
Where to Buy Cultured Pearls
When you are buying cultured pearls or any piece of fine jewelry, you are making an important decision. How do you know where to buy?
To make sure you get jewelry that you will be happy with now and for years to come follow a simple rule: buy from a professional jeweler, someone you can trust. Choose a retailer who has been serving the community for a number of years and has an established reputation.
Ask if the jeweler is a member of the Jewelers of America, the national association for retail jewelers, or look for the "J" mark on the door. Your JA jeweler is knowledgeable and can help you select, and match your cultured pearls and guide you, not only through this purchase, but any fine jewelry purchase.