A String of Pearls
Pearls are my newest love affair and I’m excited to have completed two new hand carved pieces using gorgeous grey, natural Tahitian pearls as well as grey Akoya pearls (see these below). Working with pearls piqued my interest and I set out to learn more about these natural works of art. Do you have pearls in your jewelry collection? My sweet husband bought me a super surprise birthday gift this year. . . a beautiful 18” strand of creamy white, Mikimoto pearls. They are dreamy. I love wearing them with t-shirts and jeans and not just keeping them for “out to dinner” outfits. They deserve to be seen. I hope you will enjoy reading my blog and learning a bit about pearls!
18k gold drop earrings with grey Tahitian pearls by Jane Bartel Jewelry
Pearls, the soft, sensual June birthstone, are one of nature’s most beautiful organic gems. This means they are produced by a living creature. In the case of pearls, we have mollusks to thank. There are a number of different species that produce the lovely gems, both saltwater and freshwater, but of course the most well-known are from oysters. Who hasn’t dreamt of eating a delicious oyster and finding a shimmering, iridescent pearl nestled inside?
18k gold sea urchin textured ring with a grey Tahitian pearl by Jane Bartel Jewelry
Just as there are many different species of mollusks that produce pearls, there are many different varieties of pearls. The three you will most often see are the Akoya (gorgeous pearly whites), the South sea (larger soft golds), and the Tahitian (beautiful dark greys and peacock overlays). Other colors are possible as well, and some pearls on the market are also dyed in a riot of color. These varieties are all commonly cultured pearls, as are nearly all pearls on the market today. This doesn’t mean the pearls are ‘man-made’, but rather that the oysters are given a reason to create a pearl in the first place.
A cultured pearl inside an oyster shell
Oysters don’t like it when pieces of grit or little worms get inside their shells and bother their soft, squishy insides. Imagine a piece of rock stuck in your shoe, except that you can’t ever get rid of it because you can never take your shoe off. Annoying, right? The oysters agree, so to lessen the bumpy irritation they secrete a substance called ‘nacre’ to coat the foreign object. Over time, this nacre builds and builds, forming the lustrous pearls we know and love.
This process does happen naturally, albeit rarely. Before the development of cultured pearls, free divers would spend hours upon hours pulling up thousands of oysters hunting for just a single pearl. Natural pears were so rare that they often were more expensive than diamonds, rubies, emeralds, etc. A necklace of natural pearls, perfectly round and perfectly matched, would fetch enormous sums.
One of the most well-known stories is of course that of the Cartier Mansion in New York City. Currently the Maison’s flagship in the United States, the mansion was once owned by the wealthy Morton Plant. His young wife Maisey fell in love with a double strand of natural pearls that Cartier had for sale, and Pierre Cartier, one of the three famous brothers, agreed to trade the necklace and $100 for the mansion! Read more about that fascinating history here.
The famous strand of pearls that were traded for the Cartier Mansion
Pearl harvesting was frightfully dangerous work, and of course also devastating to the ecosystems these oysters lived in. Thankfully, cultured pearls were commercialized by the famous Mikimoto in the 1910’s and became popular within the following decades. In this instance, a bead is manually inserted into the oyster for it to secrete nacre around. The oysters at pearl farms are kept as happy and healthy as possible, and do they ever produce some gorgeous pearls.
Portrait of Mrs. Mae Caldwell Manwaring Plant, by Claudia Munro Kerr, from an original by Alphonse Junger.
Pierre Cartier one of the three famous Cartier brothers
The Cartier Mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City circa 1920
Unsurprisingly, pearls love water. One way to keep your pearls shiny and lustrous is to avoid keeping them in dry environments. If your pearls are in a safe, put a small cup of water in there to humidify the air as it evaporates. If pearls dry out for too long, they can craze, or develop small cracks. No soap or chemicals should ever go near your pearls. They should be the last thing you put on, and the first thing you take off. To clean them, a gentle wipe down with a damp cloth will do or take them to a professional jeweler. It’s also recommended to get strung pearls checked once every year or so (depending on how often you wear them) to make sure the knots are not worn through and the pearls aren’t rubbing against one another.
Do you have stories about your pearl jewelry? I would love to hear them.