April 20, 2010

For the love of PEARLS!

If someone said to me, 'Erin, you must pick one gemstone to wear and only one gemstone for the rest of your existence on this great Earth," first, I would panic, upbraiding them for giving me such an ultimatum, but,once I got past all that, it's a slam dunk I'd unhesitantly answer PEARLS.  Like an ungrateful cheater, I would not choose my own birthstone of Aquamarine, which is quite precious and amazing in its own right, but I would choose June's birthstone, the pearl.  Yeah, I've always been jealous of June!  In my jewelry workshop, a good third of my storage space is lived in by pearls of all shapes, colors and sizes waiting for my inspiration!  I use them in almost everything.  Is it because I'm a Pisces and they make me feel good, like I'm harnessing a piece of the ocean to gift to a piece?  Is it because the ones I favor the most are funky and groovy shapes with irridescence you can't get from any other man-made stone?  Is it because they are affordable yet somehow precious at the same time?  Yes, yes and yes.  I just simply love pearls for so many reasons!  Some of my favorite pieces are scattered throughtout this posting...some are sold (and yes, I miss them) and some are waiting for a new home (after I'm done with them, of course!).  All make me happy.

A Mabe or Blister Pearl pendant - Groovy!

The following is a little piece I wrote for the blog of an Etsy group I used to belong to (no time now!).  It's quite gushing, but can you blame me?! 

A Little History of Pearls
Pearls throughout time have always been highly valued and have always been a sign of wealth and good taste (uh hem...I AM a person of great taste). The pearl is the only gem that is created by a living creature and they are the oldest prized gem known to man (and his stylish woman). In Roman times, women of privilege chose pearls as the sign of their wealth and class. Pearls were so prized, the Roman general Vitellius is said to have financed his military campaign by selling just one of his mother’s pearl earrings. Quotes and poems about pearls have existed throughout antiquity with pearls symbolizing endearing and enduring love. William Shakespeare used the pearl often in his prose:

She is mine own. 
And as rich in having such a jewel
As twenty seas, if all their sand were pearl,
The water nectar, and the rocks pure gold.
From "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"
~ William Shakespeare

Over hill, over dale,
 Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
 Thorough flood, thorough fire.
 I do wander everywhere
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
 And I serve the fairy queen
 To dew her orbs upon the green.
Cowslips tall her pensioners be.
 In their gold coats spots you see.
 Those be rubies, fairy favors.
 In those freckles live their savors.
 I must go seek some dewdrops here
 And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
Farewell, thou lob of spirits. I’ll be gone.
Our queen and all our elves come here anon.
A Fairy to Robin Goodfellow (or Puck) in A Midsummer Night's Dream
 ~ William Shakespeare
Simply my favorite Shakespeare quote, which is no surprise as I fancy fairies immensely! 

Rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a poor house; as your pearl in a foul oyster!
Said by Audry in "As You Like It," whilst protecting her virginity and integrity
~William Shakespeare

I'm not kidding when I say the pearl is the oldest and most revered gemstone known to man (and don't forget his fabulously-adorned woman)!  The Bible, one of our oldest documents (every version there is) refers to the pearl as being divine, a symbol of virtue, purity and goodness:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: /
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
~The Bible

And the twelve gates were twelve pearls: every several gate was of one pearl:
and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass.
~The Bible

Sheesh...I mean, "The Pearly Gates."  The doorway to Heaven?  Hel-lo!  Pearls have been most divine throughout human history, no? 

In the 1700’s, diamonds were discovered and overtook pearls in popularity. They became more affordable than pearls and the demand for pearls dropped drastically. Then, in the early 1900s, three Japanese men independently discovered how to culture pearls and later joined forces, beginning the company, Mikimoto, which is still the premier brand of cultured saltwater pearls, called Akoya. It took years and years for the cultured pearl to be accepted, but they now account for over 95% of the world’s pearl production. Before the cultured pearl, natural pearls were extremely rare and expensive. You had to practically be royalty to be able to afford a pearl. Now, with freshwater and saltwater cultured pearls, we all can afford to bring the beauty of pearls into our lives.  Thank you, Akoya (I'm bowing as I say this...)

My jewelry designs often incorporate pearls. Of course, I always deal with cultured pearls. My beloved Aunt Carolyn once gave me real pearl earrings for my 16th birthday.  I remember my mother, grandmother and Aunt Carolyn oohing and aaawing over them and my gathering a sense of how special these pearls really were.  Now, they have an almost mystical feeling about them. There is something about a natural pearl that is magic. Pure and simple.  Hey, I wouldn't be surprised if that phrase didn't have something to do wtih pearls!  That's what they are:  Pure and simple.  I'd like to add classic, divine, dreamy and alluring, too, but Pure and Simple will do! 

I made this necklace for my Aunt Carolyn
with abalone & colored pearls
Another fabulous thing about pearls is that they demand to be worn. Pearls grow dull and lusterless without sunlight and the oils of our skin. They will not be thrown in the back of the jewelry box or they will let you know they’re displeased! Any time you buy a strand of pearls, the first thing the jeweler will tell you is to WEAR THESE PEARLS and let them see the light of day! It lends to my feeling that pearls are almost alive and have their own spirits.

I love the ocean and pearls encompass everything I find beautiful there. I think I also have an ingrained sense of how special pearls are, even if they are coaxed to creation by humans. Coaxed, but ultimately, it's magic created by that oyster whether helped along or not!  There are so many different shapes and colors that are offered now, as a jewelry designer, they easily help to spark creativity. Back in the day, it could’ve taken a year to collect enough pearls that matched in grade, shape and color to make a necklace. Today, it’s as simple as heading to your local bead shop or picking up your computer’s mouse! Pearls are everywhere and are dyed all different shades and are produced in all different shapes. Just as with diamonds and other fine gemstones, there are different grades of pearls. It’s good to know how they’re graded so you, as a jewelry designer, can know you are getting what you pay for.

Pearls 101:
Cultured pearls can be broken down into two groups: Saltwater and freshwater. Saltwater pearls are typically rounder and are more expensive than freshwater, but freshwater pearls are able to be cultured into many different shapes and colors. The way pearls are cultured is that humans introduce an irritant into an oyster or mussel. For freshwater pearls, the irritant is a piece of shaped mantle (or mollusc tissue) from another mollusc. The shape of the mantle lends to the shape of the pearl that is produced. Freshwater pearls are grown in mussels which can produce between 10 – 20 pearls, which is another reason freshwater pearls are more inexpensive. Saltwater cultured pearls use a piece of mantle tissue as well as a shell bead nucleus. Usually saltwater pearls are cultured in oysters, which only grow one pearl at a time, hence their higher cost. Cultivation for any pearl is usually from 6 months to five years. The longer the cultivation, the stronger the nacre or what the mollusc secretes around the irritant to protect itself, thus creating the pearl. Saltwater pearls are sometimes cultured for only six months and can be sold much cheaper, but are not as strong.

So, how do you know you’re getting the bang for the buck you’re looking for? With pearls, and most of everything else, you get what you pay for. Another thing about understanding the grade of pearls is that it is very common sense. Usually, you can tell what you are looking at with pearls and their quality is almost obvious. Pearl grading is very much like diamond grading in that there are categories. With pearls, there are five basic categories of qualitative comparisons: Luster, shape, color, surface and size.

Luster is how shiny or dull pearl is. Obviously, with pearls, the shinier, the better. The longer the pearl was cultured, the more mirror-like its finish and the more expensive it will be. Low luster pearls are milky or chalky and cost much less than the high-luster pearls. However, well-done low-luster pearls can be very artistic and groovy!  Don't count them out completely.

The most prized pearl shape is perfectly round and is category A. Then you’ve got category B or Almost Round; C, Off Round or Roundish; D, Egg Round; and E, Oval or Potato Shaped. Category F is the broadest category and is called Semi-Baroque. It encompasses all other shapes that are neither round nor off-round. Some examples are button pearls, coin pearls, pear pearls, rice pearls, stick pearls, etc. Category F is my favorite category because it’s the most fun to design with! F for FUN!  Sheeyeah! 

The color of pearls doesn’t really affect the cost as it is completely subjective and a matter of personal taste. Natural pearl colors are dictated by the type of mollusk that houses it and the type of nucleus used. Even the conditions of the water the mollusk lives in can be a factor in determining the pearl’s color. Colors that occur naturally are white, silver, cream, pink, lilac, silver and gold. Other natural colors are black and green-black, otherwise known as Tahitian pearls, which are produced by the black-lipped oyster and which are highly prized and highly expensive! Cultured pearls are often bleached or dyed to obtain the myriad of colors sold.

Peacock-colored coin pearls

The surface of pearls does affect price and the more unblemished a pearl is, the higher its price. To find pearls without blemishes is extremely rare. As pearls are the only gem that is grown by a living creature, each one is unique and has its own identifying marks, much like a person’s fingerprints. In my opinion, a pearl’s natural marks and blemishes are what make it unique and interesting. However, if we’re talking about deep cracks or chips in the pearl’s nacre, you’re looking at a pearl that will probably not last very long, which is what you want to avoid. I've had pearls crack in half when subjected to the stress of being worn on someone's finger or wrist. 

Simple, but beautiful...

The last category in determining a pearl’s price is obviously its size. The larger the pearl, the more expensive it is, which is true with any gemstone, in conjunction with the other factors listed above. Duh.  However, in the case of pearls, the larger the pearl, the longer it needed the time to develop inside its mollusk. It is also super difficult for a pearl to maintain a perfectly round shape as it grows and it is rare when it does remain perfectly round. That’s why large, round pearls are extremely rare and are very, very expensive, natural or cultured.

The Moral of our Story:
Wrapped pearls in all different shapes & sizes!

Of course there's one!  The moral to the pearl story is that you get what you pay for, which is true in most aspects of life! To me, purchasing pearls on line is extremely hard and I am often times disappointed. Pearls are all so different, each one with its own unique marks and color, it’s important to me to be able to look at them personally in natural light and to feel them. It sounds funny, but a great way to test whether or not a pearl is real is to run your teeth over its surface. Faux (or fake) pearls are usually glass beads coated with a fish-scale mixture called "pearl essence."  You've probably seen that as one whole word:  "Pearlessence."   If it’s not real, it will feel very smooth and the coating may even chip off from the pressure of your teeth. Not too long ago, Swarovski came out with a faux pearl that has a leaded crystal core with a “pearl” coating. A real pearl has an unmistakable feeling on your teeth. It’s a bit bumpy or gritty feeling. If you’re not embarrassed, next time you’re in your favorite bead shop and if they don’t mind (and if you aren’t too germaphobic!), scrape a pearl with your upper teeth so you will know what it feels like and can not be fooled! Yeah, you bet I do the tooth test!  The few times I have bought pearls on line, they are from dealers whom I’ve dealt with for other supplies successfully. They also have easy return policies, which I’ve had to use to send back pearls that I was not satisfied with. Personally, I like to stick with my tried and true dealers located in my home town or who I know from the gem faires. I have also bought pearls at estate sales and garage sales. Get wherever the gettin' is good! 
To me, the many shapes, colors and sizes of modern-day cultured pearls lends to an ease in creativity! Pearls are pleasing for so many reasons. They are versatile and come in so many different sizes and colors. They can be very affordable. They mix well with silver or gold, ceramics, crystal, glass, wood or other shells. They are an equal opportunity component!  They inherently lend a sense of class to any piece they’re a part of.

I LOVE PEARLS or can't you tell?! 


  1. Amazing post woman!!!

    I love my pearl necklace you made! It is magical!

  2. Agreed! Despite all of the color I use in my work, Pearls
    are my Favorite too!
    Happy Mother's Day my friend!
    Great Post!

  3. I was born in October and my favourite colour is PINK but...if I had to choose a gem and only one... it would be Pearl. I am always drawn to them. I love the simplicity yet so humbly elegant they are. Your pearl jewelery is very pretty!!