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FACTS ABOUT PEARLS
Pearls in Jewelry
The value of the pearls in jewelry is determined by a combination of the luster,
color, size, lack of surface flaw and symmetry that are appropriate for the type
of pearl under consideration. Among those attributes, luster is the most important
differentiator of pearl quality according to jewelers.
All factors being equal, however, the larger the pearl the more valuable it is. Large,
perfectly round pearls are rare and highly valued. Teardrop-shaped pearls are often
used in pendants.
Pearls come in eight basic shapes: round, semi-round, button, drop, pear, oval, baroque,
and circled. Perfectly round pearls are the rarest and most valuable shape. Semi-rounds
are also used in necklaces or in pieces where the shape of the pearl can be disguised
to look like it is a perfectly round pearl. Button pearls are like a slightly flattened
round pearl and can also make a necklace, but are more often used in single pendants
or earrings where the back half of the pearl is covered, making it look like a larger,
Woman with a Pearl Necklace, by Jan Vermeer van Delft, 1665
Drop and pear shaped pearls are sometimes referred to as teardrop pearls and are
most often seen in earrings, pendants, or as a center pearl in a necklace. Baroque
pearls have a different appeal to them than more standard shapes because they are
often highly irregular and make unique and interesting shapes. They are also commonly
seen in necklaces. Circled pearls are characterized by concentric ridges, or rings,
around the body of the pearl.
In general, cultured pearls are less valuable than natural pearls, and imitation
pearls are less valuable than cultured pearls. One way that jewelers can determine
whether a pearl is cultured or natural is to have a gem lab perform an x-ray of the
pearl. If the x-ray reveals a nucleus, the pearl is likely a bead-nucleated saltwater
pearl. If no nucleus is present, but irregular and small dark inner spots indicating
a cavity are visible, combined with concentric rings of organic substance, the pearl
is likely a cultured freshwater. Cultured freshwater pearls can often be confused
for natural pearls which present as homogeneous pictures which continuously darken
toward the surface of the pearl. Natural pearls will often show larger cavities where
organic matter has dried out and decomposed.
Some imitation pearls are simply made of mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell, while
others are made from glass and are coated with a solution containing fish scales
called essence d'Orient. Although imitation pearls look the part, they do not have
the same weight or smoothness as real pearls, and their luster will also dim greatly.
Lengths of Pearl
There is a special vocabulary used to describe the length of pearl necklaces. While
most other necklaces are simply referred to by their physical measurement, pearl
necklaces are named by how low they hang when worn around the neck. A collar, measuring
10 to 13 inches or 25 to 33 cm in length, sits directly against the throat and does
not hang down the neck at all; collars are often made up of multiple strands of pearls.
Pearl chokers, measuring 14 to 16 inches or 35 to 41 cm in length, nestle just at
the base of the neck. A strand called a princess length, measuring 17 to 19 inches
or 43 to 48 cm in length, comes down to or just below the collarbone. A matinee length,
measuring 20 to 24 inches or 50 to 60 cm in length, falls just above the breasts.
An opera length, measuring 28 to 35 inches or 70 to 90 cm in length, will be long
enough to reach the breastbone or sternum of the wearer; and longer still, a pearl
rope, measuring more than 45 inches or 115 cm in length, is any length that falls
down farther than an opera.
Necklaces can also be classified as uniform, or graduated. In a uniform strand of
pearls, all pearls are classified as the same size, but actually fall in a range.
A uniform strand of akoya pearls, for example, will measure within 0.5 mm. So a strand
will never be 7 mm, but will be 6.5-7 mm. Freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls, and
South Sea pearls all measure to a full millimeter when considered uniform.
A graduated strand of pearls most often has at least 3 mm of differentiation from
the ends to the center of the necklace. Popularized in the United States during the
1950s by the GIs bringing strands of cultured akoya pearls home from Japan, a 3.5
momme, 3 mm to 7 mm graduated strand was much more affordable than a uniform strand
because most of the pearls were small.
Colors of Pearl
Earrings and necklaces can also be classified on the grade of the color of the pearl.
While white, and more recently black, saltwater pearls are by far the most popular,
other color tints can be found on pearls from the oceans. Pink, blue, champagne,
green and even purple saltwater pearls can be encountered, but to collect enough
pearls to form a complete string of the same size and same shade can take years.
In 1914, pearl farmers began growing cultured freshwater pearls using the pearl mussels
native to Lake Biwa. This lake, the largest and most ancient in Japan, lies near
the city of Kyoto. The extensive and successful use of the Biwa Pearl Mussel is reflected
in the name Biwa pearls, a phrase which was at one time nearly synonymous with freshwater
pearls in general. Since the time of peak production in 1971, when Biwa pearl farmers
produced six tons of cultured pearls, pollution has caused the virtual extinction
of the industry. Japanese pearl farmers recently cultured a hybrid pearl mussel —
a cross between Biwa Pearl Mussels and a closely related species from China, Hyriopsis
cumingi, in Lake Kasumigaura. This industry has also nearly ceased production, due
Japanese pearl producers also invested in producing cultured pearls with freshwater
mussels in the region of Shanghai, China. China has since become the world's largest
producer of freshwater pearls, producing more than 1,500 metric tons per year.
Led by pearl pioneer John Latendresse and his wife Chessy, the United States began
farming cultured freshwater pearls in the mid 1960's. National Geographic Magazine
introduced the American cultured pearl as a commercial product in their August 1985
issue. The Tennessee pearl farm has emerged as a tourist destination in recent years,
but commercial production of freshwater pearls has ceased.
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