Real, cultured or fake, pearls flatter women of any age, shape size or coloring. Glowing with light , they can be worn with equal ease with casual sportswear, tailored business suits, and revealing evening wear. Pearls are generous, sharing their luminous glow with your skin and hair. They are the ultimate team players of accessories generously complementing rather than demanding attention.
How Pearls are Made
Pearls are created when a tiny foreign object ( like grain of sand) drifts into the shell of an oyster or mussel. To ease the discomfort of the intruder, the mollusk secretes a white crystalline substance called nacre to coat the irritant. The layers of this material on the grain of sand eventually produces a pearl. In real pearls, the irritants sweep into the shell from the ocean floor. In clutured pearls, a tiny bead is inserted into the oyster and allowed to mature. After 2-3 years the oysters are harvested and the pearls are removed. Only x-rays can tell the difference between cultured and natural pearl– which are more than ten times more expensive than their man-made cousins.
Shades and Shapes of Pearls
Both natural and cultured pearls come in a range of colors from silvery white to glowing dark charcoal. The most desireable ( and costly) color for the classic string of pearls is the pink-hued white called roseate which is valued for its ability to warm up pale or yellow skin tones. Silvery or creamy white pearls cool down and soften ruddy, rough complexions.
Its proably not much of a surprise to learn that as pearls get bigger, their cost grows too. The average pearl ranges from the size of a peppercorn ( 4mm) to the diameter of a mature green pea ( 9mm). Over 10 mm, the price soars for both cultured and natural pearls. In a necklace, the pearls are usually graduated slightly in size to drape better around the neck.
PEARL TIP SHEET
* CULTURED PEARLS
Using a technique developed by Mikimoto in the 1930’s, cultured pearls are produced in the Akoya oysters that live in the shallow waters off the coast of Japan. They are seen in a range of greys and whites, but always ask if the color is natural ( good) or treated (less good). The best are formed around very tiny grains that allow many layers of ntural nacre to develop. The less expensive cultured pearls start with small glass balls, which need far fewer layers of nacre to make a nice size pearl.
Always rare and expensive, they can only truely be distinguished from cultured pearls by an X-ray.
* MABE PEARLS
Mabe pearls are formed on the shell of an oyster. Round or shaped like a tear drop, they are smooth on one side and irregular on the other. Grown on mabe oysters, they are usually used in earrings.
* SOUTH SEA PEARLS
Big, beautiful and rare, South Sea pearls are produced in an oyster that can be as large as a dinner plate. Ranging from 10mm ( the size of fresh pea) to 20mm ( think small olive) the finest South Sea pearls are perfectly round, silvery white and completely smooth. The newest South Sea pearls are a luminous yellow and were born to be worn by blondes.
*TAHITIAN BLACK PEARLS
Harvested from the black-lipped oyster that lives only in the waters of Polynesia, Tahitian black pearls range in color from medium grey to charcoal black. About the same size as South Sea pearls, they are found in round and teardrop shapes. Tahitian Pearls are used in solitaire rings, and earrings and often combined with diamonds.
*FAKE or FAUX PEARLS
These pearls have never seen the ocean. They are created by dipping little glass balls into an irridescent solution that includes fish scales and oyster fluids. Althought they are the least expensive type of pearls, it takes a magnifying glass to differentiate good quality fakes from cultured or real pearls.
Small and irregularly shaped, they are found naturally in Oriental freshwater mussels. Also called Japanese freshwater pearls, they come in many shades of white, pink and grey in square, round and oval shapes.
Irregularly shaped white and grey pearls, they are the byproducts of cultured pearl production. They are attached to the sides of the oyster shell and make dynamic modern jewelry.
* AMERICAN NATURAL PEARLS
Grown in American freshwater mussels these oval and lumpy pearls are used mainly in Native American jewelry.
This is the term given to real, cultured or fake pearls with a lumpy shape and bumpy surface. They look much better than they sound and are beautiful in earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings.
These gorgeous pearls have never seen the inside of an oyster. The Cadillac of imitation pearls, they are composed of small handblown glass beds dipped 28 times in a patented ( and secret) mixture of fish scales and oyster saliva. They are sold in a variety of sizes and colors. As a brand names, Majorca pearls can be more expensive than poor quality cultured pearls.
Styling With Pearls
While holiday activities seem to be created to showcase your pearls, these glowing beauties can be worn year round from morning to night. Today I am wearing small white pearl stud earrings with grey cashmere sweater, grey flannel and black patant loafers as I try to complete my holiday shopping. Tomorrow I am wearing my fake pearl and diamond earrings and black velvet shift to a clients birthday party at the Plaza. When the weather turns a bit warmer, I love to wear a short simple string of pearls with skinny black pants, white tee and a jean jacket. In the summer I love to slip on a big faux pearl cuff bracelet with a long pale linen shift, black and bone chanel style flats and a black straw tote bag.
For more about different types of pearls and their role in history go to this terriffic guide from the Museum of Natural History. They had a glorious exhibit on pearls which is now closed, but the guide remains with accurate and fascinating information.