Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Not Your Grandmother's Pearls

Pearls have been used in jewelry and to decorate clothing for centuries. Long ago pearls were a symbol of wealth and could only be afforded by Royalty and the extremely wealthy.

A pearl is an accident of nature. Mollusks defend themselves from irritants, such as sand, that get into their shells. They form a protective substance called nacre around the irritant to keep it from harming it's delicate inner tissues. This is what forms the pearl.

Pearls were expensive because a natural occurring pearl was difficult to find. You could literally open hundreds of mussels or oysters and only find one or two pearls. Also, as the mollusk adds layer upon layer of nacre to the irritant, the pearl usually forms in different shapes. So finding a pearl that was round and symmetrical increased its value tremendously.

In the early 1900's the Japanese began to look for ways to entice oysters to produce round pearls on demand. They began with saltwater oysters and then began experimenting with freshwater mussels. Initial commercial freshwater pearl crops appeared in the 1930's. While the Japan were the pioneers in the cultured pearl arena, today the best cultured pearls come from China.

Today there are also artificially manufactured pearls or imitation pearls. Some imitation pearls are made from mother of pearl or conch shell, while others are made of glass and coated with a solution containing fish scales. Although imitation pearls look good they do not have the same luster as real pearls.

Pearls come in eight basic shapes: round, semi-round, button, drop, pear, oval, baroque, and circled. Perfectly round pearls are the rarest and most valuable shape.

There is also a special vocabulary to describe the length of pearl necklaces. A collar is 10 to 13 inches and should sit directly against the throat. Chokers are 14 to 16 inches and sit at the base of the neck. Princess length is 17 to 19 inches and comes to just below the collarbone. Matinee length is 20 to 24 inches and falls just above the breasts. Opera length is 28 to 35 inches and should be long enough to reach the breast bone or sternum. The longest is the pearl rope which is more than 45 inches.

White and black are the most popular colors of saltwater pearls. Other color tints can be found on saltwater pearls such as pink, champagne and green. But these are rare and hard to find. Freshwater and artificial pearls can be dyes and are available in a range of colors.

The pearl is the official birthstone for the month of June. They are also considered to offer the power of love, money, protection and luck. Some believe that pearls also give the wearer wisdom and cement engagements and love relationships.

Today many artisans use pearls to design gorgeous pieces. The size, shape and color vary so much that the possibilities are endless. While grandma was happy to wear a nice single strand or maybe even a double strand of all white or cream color pearls, that is no longer the case today. The pearl has come out of it's shell so to speak. And we are so much the luckier for it.

Below I have featured some interesting pearl designs from ArtFire artisans.


This bracelet is comprised of many lovely iridescent fresh water peacock pearls and really lovely aqua multi colored lampwork beads for a stunning look.

Dozens of iridescent purple and black cultured fresh water peacock pearls form a nice cluster pendant on this necklace. What a creative use of pearls.

Sweet and petite pink freshwater pearls and one white fresh water pearl compose these floral dangle earrings. All other components are sterling silver.

This stunning freshwater pearl necklace was created using gold and copper peacock top drilled freshwater pearls. The focal point of the necklace is a copper heart that was designed and created by artisan Patricia Healey.

Light blue freshwater pearl top drilled at an angle were used to make this necklace.The focal point of the necklace are the beautiful boro lampwork beads in shades of blue. These beads were hand made by expert glass artisan Chet Corneliuson of BC Lampworks.

This double strand freshwater pearl and crystal bracelet is stunning. The light blue oval pearl strand is accented by 2mm round silver beads. The 2nd strand of white rice pearls is accented by 5mm aqua AB Swarovski crystals.


Freshwater coin pearls accent the pendant portion of this fabulous necklace.

The neck strap is made up of a random mix of, Swarovski crystals, fresh water pearls in two colors and sizes, Czech glass beads and antique seed beads. The pearls and crystals compliment each other wonderfully in this piece.

The tassels on the bottom of her feet and her necklace strap are an eclectic mix of fresh water pearls, vintage seed and bugle beads and vintage Czech crystals. Very nice use of pearls.

Two of my favorite pearl creations are this triple strand of pearls in varying sizes and colors. There is a mixture of freshwater and Swarovski pearls in this piece.

You no longer have to just wear a pearl stud if you want to wear pearl earrings. I made these from Swarovski pearls. It's all about the dangle baby.

Grandma may have loved her single strand of white pearls in maybe a choker or princess length but now we are taking the pearl to new heights and having fun doing it.


  1. Such beautiful pieces! I love pearls.
    I have a question, is it true that if there is not a knot tied between each pearl that they will start to erode from rubbing against each other or other beads/stones? I heard that about 20 years ago and wondered if it was fact or fiction.

  2. Wow... thank you so much for including my work in your article. Very nice post.

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