Picturesque Pearls: A Style Guide
By Paige McKirahan
With wedding season well on its way, we wanted to take a look at one of our favorite elegant motifs in accessories for these upcoming warm weather months. Since pearls first made their way into the realm of jewelry, they have been the true symbol of class and superiority; seeing has how the pearl is the world's oldest gemstone with traces back to 420 BC, this elitist undertone has deep historical roots. In the Byzantine empire, for example, it was dictated that only the emperor was permitted to wear pearls with other societies having similar laws. Until the 20th century, pearls were considered to be one of the most valuable gems on the market all over the globe; prior to this time, all pearls were naturally found in wild mollusks, making them more rare and coveted than ever.
Oldest pearl necklace in existence on display at the Louvre (source)
In ancient Greek culture and at the height of the Roman Empire, pearls were worn on gowns, necklaces, and were even used to decorate furniture in wealthy households. It was even said that Cleopatra preferred pearl jewelry above all others, and she went as far as dissolving one of her most priceless pairs of pearl earrings in a glass of wine before drinking it! This ancient popularity led to pearls being extremely favorable with the monarchy; pearls of all shape and color varieties were widely sought after, and many were coming directly from the Persian Gulf. The 16th century in England was even referred to as the Pearl Age, perfectly reflecting the gemstone's prestige at the time.
Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl in Wine, Andrea Casali (source)
In the Victorian Age, seed pearls became more favorable than any of their counterparts on account of the fact that their small size made them perfect for jewelry and other accessories. They are typically no larger than 2mm in diameter, and they were widely associated with pure ideals. Royal love of pearls continued for generations, with Queen Victoria having an affinity for all things pearl. Prince Albert gifted her a pair of drop-style pearl earrings in 1847, and these are now owned and proudly worn by the reigning monarch, Elizabeth II.
It wasn't until the late 1800s that pearls became a widely accessible material; in 1893, Kokicho Mikimoto discovered how to create cultured pearls, prompting the creation of over 350 pearl farms across Japan by 1935. This caused a widespread pearl mania that perfectly complemented contemporary culture all throughout the 1900s. From Coco Chanel's iconic 1936 portrait to Audrey Hepburn's emblematic look in Breakfast at Tiffany's, pearls became a true symbol of luxury. This sophisticated aesthetic shifted with Alber Elbaz at the helm of Lanvin, where he reimagined the gemstones as a "cool girl" motif rather than something you would find in your grandmother's jewelry box. He truly spun their reputation into something journalists felt were "not like your mother's pearls", and the gemstone has been present in haute couture ever since.
Coco Chanel and Audrey Hepburn in pearls (source)
Now that we know the history behind the eponymous stone, its time to evaluate the types of pearls. They can now be produced in a variety of different ways, with each having its own special set of characteristics! Whether they are natural or cultured, they are formed when a mollusk produces layers of nacre around molecules inside of the shell. The quality of the nacre is what controls the level of the pearls shine, which can cause it to decrease or increase in value. High-quality pearls should be smooth and blemish free, with shapes ranging from round to misshapen. Misshapen pearls are considered to be baroque, after the art movement. Lastly, a pearl set in necklaces can be uniform with all pearls at the same size, or graduated, meaning they change uniformly from the end to the center. With this education in mind, let's take a look at the specific types of pearls on the market!
Natural pearls are the rarest type, with many historically being found in the Persian Gulf. Though many have already been harvested, you may be able to purchase these small gemstones, but they will cost you a pretty penny!
Cultured pearls are grown in farms, with the mollusks containing them being raised until they reach the point of being able to accept the mother-of-pearl bead nucleus. The pearl technician then implants the bead and returns the mollusk to water to form the gem. Not all cultured pearls are of high quality, and it can take tens of thousands of pearls to compile a group similar enough to use in jewelry.
Many countries grow cultured pearls in their saltwater seas. Japan and China produce cultured pearls that can range from 2 mm to 10mm in size, and are usually white in color. Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines produce the largest of all cultured pearls. They are considered the "South Sea pearl" and can get up to 20 mm with colors ranging from white to cream to gold. There are also saltwater pearls grown in the islands of French Polynesia, with their sizes ranging from 8mm to 16mm. They can be naturally black, but they typically can be gray, blue, green, or purple.
Freshwater pearls mostly hail from China and are grown in lakes, rivers, and ponds all over the continent. Many are white and similar in size to Akoya pearls in size and shape, and usually, have a thicker nacre on account of them not having a bead nucleus.
Imitation pearls usually have a high luster and are coated glass beads. You can tell these apart from cultured or natural pearls, but it may prove to be difficult based upon how the pearls were treated. For tips on how to analyze your pearls, click here!
We hope that this gave you a better insight into all things pearls! We now have a little bit of pearl mania and if you do too, be sure to check out our selection of pearl accessories!