A Girl’s Guide To Pearls

Written by: Sue Fritz | | Jewelry

Coco Chanel, the ultimate pearl girl, once said “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” She also said “A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls,” and we agree! Nothing says elegance like a pearl necklace, whether you’re in a meeting or out for cocktails. Pearls are the ultimate accessory, and just happen to be the birthstone for lucky June babies! There are tons of different kinds of pearls, so use this quick guide to avoid any surprises when you get a pearl necklace appraisal.


Natural Pearls

Natural pearls are rare and valuable. Freshwater pearls tend to be less expensive than the saltwater variant, and are often irregularly-shaped. In the early 1900s, the jewelry store Cartier traded a society matron a double-strand of natural pearls for her Fifth Avenue townhouse, which eventually became their headquarters. At the time, a pearl necklace appraisal would have shown that the strands were worth about $1,000,000!

Natural pearls come from mollusks like clams, oysters, and mussels. These creatures create their shells by secreting calcium carbonate, which is called mother-of-pearl if it coats the inside of the shell and nacre if it covers the pearl. When debris like bits of coral or bone get caught in the shell, the mollusk coats it with nacre, creating a pearl. Unlike cultured pearls, natural saltwater pearls are nacre through and through, creating a beautiful luminosity and rich, lustrous glow.

 

Cultured Pearls

Luckily for those of us without a spare townhouse to trade, cultured pearls are almost identical to natural pearls. To create a cultured pearl, a shell bead is inserted into a live mollusk, usually an oyster. The oyster begins to coat the bead with nacre, and when it is fully coated, the cultured pearl is removed and processed. This can involve bleaching, sanding, shaping, and other methods to create what appears to be a genuine pearl. The best cultured pearls will have thick layers of nacre, as a thin shell can easily crack.

Cultured Pearls vs Natural Pearls

Imitation Pearls

By definition, a pearl is coated with nacre by a mollusk. Imitation pearls, then, are not actually pearls, but they make great accessories and are perfect for everyday use, when you may not want to risk losing your genuine jewelry. Most imitation pearls are made of coated or painted plastic. If you’re not sure, hold up a bright light to the bead. If it is plastic, it will glow evenly, since it’s uniform inside. Majorica pearls are a particular type of imitation pearls. These are made of glass beads dipped in fish scale and adhesive paste, which gives them a pearly iridescence. A good set of imitation pearls can be very difficult to distinguish from natural or cultured pearls, so they can make a fabulous choice for your first pearl necklace!

A Pearl Necklace Appraisal

You can try the ‘tooth test’ to see if your pearls are genuine or imitation. Gently rub the pearl against your teeth (be careful; pearls are delicate!). A natural pearl will feel slightly grainy, while an imitation pearl feels smooth.  If you get your pearls appraised, it will often involve X-raying the jewelry, as that’s the only way to say for sure if the pearls are natural. Your pearls will also be judged on shape (round is best), lustre, surface quality, nacre thickness, and how well they match as a set.

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