All About Pearls: Cultured, Natural and Imitation Pearls

8/25/2016 4:39 PM

All About Pearls:

 Cultured, Natural and Imitation Pearls

seed pearl tassel earrings Yael Designs

Seed Pearl Tassel Earrings, Leone Collection, Yael Designs

We have enjoyed the tradition of cultured pearls for enough generations that the typical look of cultured pearls have colored the way we believe all pearls ought to look. For most of us, the standard pearl is a beautiful, perfectly round, white sphere. But it wasn’t always this way.

natural pearls, emeralds and diamonds

Natural pearl, emerald, ruby and diamond brooch; photo by Tresor

Mother of Pearl Fan

Antique lace fan with mother of pearl sticks, by Duvelleroy

Natural pearls were very rare and therefore reserved for only the ultra rich, usually those of royal blood or royal bank accounts. Pearl divers would search out salt water oysters or fresh water mussels without any of the diving or snorkeling equipment we now take for granted. Though, even if a pearl was not found, the shell was not wasted. The mother-of-pearl, which lines the inside of the shells, could be carved into beads and buttons as well as decorative pieces, of which there was, and still is, a considerable market.

glass, essence and wax pearls

Antique glass, essence d'orient and wax beads with wax in untrimmed state

Majorica imitation pearls

Modern imitation pearls using glass and essence d'orient, by Majorica

Because natural pearls were so rare, it was common and acceptable to wear glass pearls. It is believed that many of the innumerable pearls of infamous pearl aficionado Queen Elizabeth I were glass pearls that she claimed to be genuine; and who would naysay her? During her reign, Venetian glass makers were making a name for themselves with their lovely imitation glass pearls; and Queen Elizabeth I, as well as many other notable individuals, are reputed to have owned many Venetian glass imitation pearls. By the 1600’s, a rosary maker found a way to make imitation pearls that were so convincing, his method is still the preferred method used today, with only slight modification. It consists of dipping or filling glass beads with a slurry of iridescent fish scales and varnish that we now know of as essence d’orient. Glass beads filled with essence d'orient were then filled with wax to hold the slurry in place undamaged.

Cate Blanchette as Elizabeth ICate Blanchette costumed as Queen Elizabeth I

And there was another reason royalty or the ultra rich would occasionally prefer pearl simulants to natural pearls. Makeup has always been bad for all cultured and natural pearls. It used to be common to say that your pearls had become "ill", during Edwardian times. Some people said this to claim that more money had been spent on their pearls than was actually so, but most often this "illness" was from makeup, hair products and perfumes. During the turn of the century, these products were known to darken the pearls slowly to a brownish yellow. This could only have been worse during Elizabethan times with the use of so much makeup that was drying and dangerous. Pearls are an organic excretion that absorbs what it rubs against, and what harms or adds color to human skin harms pearls as well.

Diadem belonging to Empress EugenieNatural pearl and diamond diadem belonging to Empress Eugenie

It used to be common to match natural pearls without regard to their source, whether fresh or salt water origin. It was more important to have a match, and all pearls were equally rare. Even so, it took years to gather a matched strand of pearls. It is a modern phenomenon that cultured freshwater pearls are often less expensive than saltwater and therefore the two are seldom mixed when creating a matched necklace. Mostly, this is because of shape. Round pearls are more highly prized than those of other shapes, only rivaled by drop shapes. And saltwater oysters can be nucleated with a round bead, making it more likely that the finished product will be round. Freshwater mussels traditionally are unable to be nucleated with a round bead, with a high rejection and death rate. However, they can be nucleated to grow more cultured pearls than their saltwater brethren. These two factors: shape and rarity, have combined to cause freshwater pearls to be significantly less expensive. However, because cultured freshwater and saltwater pearls have been bred to create such markedly different products, they are on occasion still combined, but to create a design accenting their differences.

Baroque Freshwater Cultured Pearl and Diamond Pendant, Yael DesignsBaroque Freshwater Cultured Pearl and Diamond Pendant, Yael Designs

Just like diamonds, there are several factors on which cultured pearls should be judged: size, shape (mentioned above), color, luster, surface quality, nacre, and matching. In our next blog post, we will more closely explore these factors.

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