Pearl Jewellery - A Brief History
It is difficult for us to believe these days, but hundreds of years ago pearls were once considered more valuable than diamonds, since only 1 oyster in 10,000 is likely to contain a natural round pearl.
In the 1890’s’s, however, Kokichi Mikimoto, the founder of Mikimoto Pearls, developed a method of successfully culturing pearls, opening his first shop in Tokyo in 1899. Since then, his methods have been successfully replicated and there are now many pearl farms in both Japan and China.
Pearls became particularly fashionable after CoCo Chanel wore layers of long pearl necklaces back in the 1920’s. In fact Christian Dior once said "With a black pullover and ten rows of pearls she revolutionized fashion".
Pearl jewellery diminished in popularity during the latter part of the 20th Century with the younger generation, who thought them staid and boring, and quite unsuitable with their outlandish outfits! Fashion or costume jewellery became massively popular catering for all price ranges although much of it was cheap and throwaway.
Over the last few years though, there has been a massive revival in pearl jewellery, with designers incorporating pearls into every style and price of jewellery and combining them with other gemstones and materials that were unimaginable in Chanel’s day.
Today you can find a huge array of pearl jewellery in every imaginable colour and design ranging from the classical to completely outrageous and funky, and at prices everyone can afford!
Why are pearls traditional wedding jewellery?
Pearl jewellery is the traditional and popular choice for bridal jewellery as pearls are said to symbolise purity and innocence.
For thousands of years pearls were the most valuable and prized gemstone. The ancient Greeks in particular believed that they should be part of every wedding, bringing contentment, marital bliss and prosperity to the newlyweds. They also thought that the pearls would "take away the brides tears" ensuring she had a happy and tear-free wedded life. Ancient Hindu writings refer to pearls as symbols of love and purity, and in Islamic traditions pearls are regarded as gifts of paradise.
During the Crusades, Knights wore them in battle believing that the magic of these beautiful gems would protect them from harm, and they would later present these pearls to their ladies for their wedding days.
During the 14th and 15th centuries it was very popular at Royal weddings in the French House of Burgundy for everyone, the bride, her attendants and all the guests (even the men!) to wear pearls.
Pearls have for thousands of years been given as wedding gifts. One of the earliest records relates the story of Krishna, the preserver of life, who retrieved a pearl from the depths of the ocean in order to give it to his daughter on her wedding day.
And so the tradition of giving pearls to the bride continues to this day, whether it be a beautiful pearl necklace handed down through the generations and worn by the bride on her wedding day, or a gift to the bride from her father or the groom. Many brides today also give their bridesmaids gifts of pearl pendants, earrings or bracelets and so the association and tradition of pearls and weddings continues.
How Pearls are formed
A pearl is formed when a small shell bead or irritant is introduced into the fleshy tissue of an oyster or mussel. The mollusc responds by secreting a substance called ’nacre’ (Mother of Pearl) which it coats over the irritant in layers eventually forming a pearl. This is the same substance that lines the inside of the shell, hence its name, Mother of Pearl.
Types of Pearls
Freshwater pearls are best known for their wonderful shapes, sizes and natural colours, and this is why they have become a favourite both with jewellery designers and jewellery wearers alike. The natural colours are white to pink and lilac, but of course they can by dyed to match other gemstones. They are generally cheaper than sea water cultured pearls, but are in no way inferior in quality. In fact because they are 100% nacre, large round lustrous freshwater pearls are so rare they are very expensive!
Akoya sea water pearls are the pearls generally used in many traditionall pearl necklace designs. They are almost always perfectly round, being nucleated with a small bead, and have a beautiful lustre. Akoya pearls are frequently referred to as ’Cultured Pearls’ and have an average size of 7mm. Kokichi Mikimoto was the first to developed a successful method of culturing Akoya pearls.
Tahitian pearls are the only pearls that are naturally black, with colours range from grey to green to dark black. The Black-Lipped Oysters that produces these beautiful an much sought after pearls can grow as large as a dinner plate! The pearls themselves are on average 9 - 14mm but can grow much larger.
White South Sea & Golden South Sea Pearls
The pearls from the Silver-Lipped Oyster and the Golden Lipped Oysters are some of the most treasured pearls of all because of their unique lustre. They can grow huge, to 20mm or more, but the average is around 12 - 13mm. South Sea Pearls are the rarest of pearls and therefore the most expensive. A high quality South Sea Pearl necklace would cost tens of thousands of pounds!
Mother of Pearl
Nacre or Mother of Pearl is the internal coating of a Pearl Oyster shell. This smoothes the shell and defends the mollusc from parasites. Mother of Pearl can be in as many colours as pearls, but is usually creamy-white to pink or lilac. Because it has the same iridescent quality as pearls it makes beautiful jewellery.
The Abalone is mollusc prized for its flesh which is considered a delicacy in some parts of the world, and for the beautiful shell interior which is coated in nacre or Mother of Pearl. The Mother of Pearl can range in colour from silvery white to pink, red, blue, green and purple, depending on the species. In New Zealand the Abalone is more commonly known as the Paua.
Real Pearls or Faux Pearls - the Tooth Test!
The simplest and quickest (but perhaps not the most hygeinic!) way to tell if a pearl is real, is ro rub it gently against your front teeth. If it feels gritty or grainy it is very likely to be real. If it feels smooth it is probably imitation. This isn’t completely foolproof of course, especially if the pearls have been heavily dyed, but it is certainly a very good guideline.
Simply Pearls do not sell faux or imitation pearls. All of our pearl jewellery, even the red, blue and green pearls, are real freshwater pearls, they have just been dyed!
Why are some freshwater pearls much more expensive than others?
The price of a pearl is dependent on a combination of its size, shape, surface quality and lustre.
Pearl size - pearls are measured in millimetres, the measurement being the diameter of the pearl. If all of the other factors are the same, then the size of the pearl has a huge impact on its price. Even a single millimetre will make a substantial difference to the price and value of the pearl.
Good quality Round Freshwater Pearls over 8mm are rare, and therefore very expensive. A pair of perfectly round 9mm gold freshwater pearl earrings, for example is likely to cost upwards of £150!
Pearl shape - A perfectly round pearl is very rare, so the rounder the pearl, the more expensive it is. Many of the off-round pearls such a button, teardrop or baroque pearls, make beautiful jewellery, yet are much less expensive for a large pearl than a round pearl.
Surface quality and lustre - Again, the more perfect the surface, ie no bumps, dents or rings, and the more lustre it has, the better quality it is and so the more expensive it is! Again though, pearls don’t have to have a completely flawless surface to be attractive, baroque Tahitian Pearls are very popular because of their size and unusual shapes, and coin pearls often have small bumps and ridges, but they are still gorgeous!
How are pearls graded?
Unlike diamonds, there isn’t an official grading system for pearls. Many companies specialising in the more traditional styles of pearl jewellery do tend to grade their pearls but as there is no official standard a "AAA" graded strand from one company may be of a different quality to a "AAA" strand from another.
How are pearls measured?
Pearls are measured in millimetres accross their diameter using a pearl measuring gauge. Teardrop or oval pearls will appear and are in fact larger than their equivalent sized (in mm) round pearls because they are measured accross their width rather than their length.
How to Care For Your Pearl Jewellery
Pearls are natural organic substances coming from oysters or molluscs. As such they need a little care and attention to remain at their best. To keep your jewellery in the best condition, we recommend the following care:
- Do not immerse your jewellery in water - so remember to take off your jewellery before showering!
- Never spray perfume, cosmetics or hairspray on, or near your jewellery as they can all dull your pearls.
- Store your pearl jewellery in a soft material such as a satin or velvet pouch, away from other jewellery which may rub and cause damage.
- Store your silver jewellery in a dry area to reduce the risk of tarnishing. To keep that rich shine, lightly polish your jewellery with a soft dry cotton or jewellery cloth.
- Always remember, your jewellery should be put on last and taken off first!
What length of Pearl Necklace should I choose?
The lengths of pearl necklaces commonly available are:
Pearl Collar - 12" to 14"
Pearl Choker - 14" to 16"
Princess - 16" to 20"
Matinee - 20" to 26"
Opera - 28" to 36"
Rope - 38" and over
Download our short guide (in PDF format) to see where the differents lengths of pearl necklaces fall. Special thanks to Emma Hutchinson for the beautiful artwork!
Ways to wear your ’Twist’ Pearl Necklace
Click here to download the PDF which will explain how we create the necklaces and bracelet in the pictures below using the special clasp.