I have not given pearls their due recognition. They have always seemed to be a relic fallen out of an oil painting or the de rigueur strand around every pastel twinset-wearing preppy girl’s collar. Pearls did not have much edge in my eyes and so I left my strands sitting in the back of my safe until I decided to do some research into the making and history of pearls while I was on holiday.
Pearls can come from saltwater (oceans) or freshwater (rivers). Many people believe pearls result from a tiny grain of sand that becomes trapped inside an oyster; this is only part of the story. Pearls can form in oysters or mussels and do so when a piece of bacteria or unfriendly item (such as a grain of sand) becomes lodged in the gonads of the bivalve. Once the foreign object is in there, it causes the bivalve immense discomfort (foreign object, gonads, hello) and it tries to ease its own suffering by coating the object or bacteria with nacre. Many many layers of nacre later the pearl is formed. Did you know that bivalves that contain pearls become deformed? Their outside shell becomes enlarged, warped and hideous–the poor Quasimodo bivalves usually hide themselves under rocks and coral out of shame. Doesn’t that just break your heart?
Natural pearls were so rare that they were reserved only for royalty or the noble classes as far back as the Egyptian and Roman Empires until Mr. Mikimoto, of the infamous Mikimoto pearl company, came around and made it his mission to commercialize pearls so that everyone can own a strand. He dedicated his life to unravelling the mystery of growing cultured pearls and it was he that discovered that placement of a seed pearl in the gonads produces a larger cultured pearl.
Mikimoto’s cultured pearl discovery was made in the early 1900′s and his final process was patented in 1916. Shortly thereafter, World War I broke out, people could not afford such indulgences and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel began making costume jewelry and costume (faux) pearls. Today, a strand of Chanel faux pearls cost significantly more than a strand of average pearls and the prices of Mikimoto cultured pearls are astronomical. Natural pearls are all but extinct as a result of modern industry, trade and pollution so you will see them only in museums and very rarely at auction.
The best pearls have luster, they should practically glow–the more layers of nacre they have the better the luster. People with a trained eye will be able to see the difference but the best way to describe it thus: pearls with thin nacre have a flimsy two-dimensional shine whereas pearls with thicker nacre will look almost oily. Color is a matter of choice, I prefer whites with a tinge of pink or black pearls. Beware of dyed pearls; if a pearl is a really bright color that doesn’t look like it came from nature. . .I won’t insult your intelligence. Many pearls are color treated nowadays by adding silver nitrate to the water–this is different from a dyed pearl. Dyed pearls will lose their color but color treated pearls will not. Know the distinction when buying your pearls.
How to care for your pearls
Pearls are at their best when frequently worn, if left in the back of a drawer or safe (shame on me) they die. Oil from our skin polishes them and keeps the nacre healthy. It is said that pearls look different once they are worn for a while as opposed to when they are just put on. In the old days, the mistress of the house would have her lady’s maid wear her pearls all day to “warm” them for her to wear that evening. My housekeeper in Shanghai, whom I was very attached to (she was like a grandmother to me), would totally have warmed mine for me but alas, I forgot to ask while I was there and I am now in the US so I have to come up with other crafty ways. Here are some options:
1) Make your children useful- if you have a daughter (or son) who is of angelic temperament and won’t rip the pearls off, have him/her warm them for you.
2) Husband/boyfriend/significant other- I have yet to convince mine to warm my pearls for me but maybe some of you may be more persuasive.
3) Do your chores in them- seriously, don’t we all need a way to make chores more decadent? The next time you’re loading laundry, washing dishes or anything else mundane, put on your pearls first.
4) Sleep in them- assuming you are not a tosser or turner and you are 100% sure you won’t inadvertently strangle yourself, you may sleep in your pearls so that your skin’s natural oils can maintain them and keep them healthy. I would only sleep in my shorter strands of necklaces and earrings–consider yourself warned, don’t strangle yourself! Be careful about what products you wear as some can damage pearls (see below).
Don’t mind me, just warming my pearls.
Pearls should be the last thing you put on as cosmetics, perfumes, hairspray and products all damage the nacre. When you take the pearls off, make sure to wipe them down with a dry moleskin cloth or a cloth with a tiny drop of olive oil to remove the residue from make up, sweat, perfume, etc. If you sleep in your pearls, please be careful with your retinol! Retinol works wonders for wrinkles but it will ruin your pearls. Finally, when storing pearls, keep them in a soft felt or lined bag by themselves. Storing them with other jewelry will damage them.
If all this is too high maintenance for you then don’t bother with high-quality pearls and opt for faux pearls instead. Personally, the history behind the little suckers and the effort required in maintaining them is exactly edge and back story that I was looking for to make pearls more compelling–it’s like having a pet jewel.
Big Kiss and Bigger Diamonds,