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Monday 16 January 2017

In praise of Pearls: birthstone for June

Image from Pixabay showing woman in hat and pearls. Pearls are the birthstone for June

It was Coco Chanel who decreed "a woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls." Lady Sarah Churchill, meanwhile, revealed: "I feel undressed if I don't have my pearls on. My pearls are my security blanket.”

Pearls are highly flattering against the skin, with the more expensive pearls casting a gorgeous light against the face. Pearl is one of the three birthstones for June. This post has been updated (June 2020) with a latest shopping guide.

We've probably all got pearls in one form of another. If we're lucky (and/or rich) they may be natural pearls. Or they may be cultured pearls, or good old imitation pearls.

A pearl is a natural gem created by a living organism. When a foreign object is introduced into a mussel or oyster the animal coats the irritant with a substance called nacre, the same material with which it makes its shell. Layers of nacre build up to make a pearl.

The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth but there are seven other shapes too. The most valuable pearls occur spontaneously in the wild, but are extremely rare. These wild pearls are referred to as natural pearls. Nowadays, most wild, natural pearl producing oyster beds have vanished due to over-fishing, oil drilling and pollution.

Cultured or farmed pearls from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels make up the majority of those currently sold.

The weight of pearls is measured in units called the momme. Momme is a weight measure used by the Japanese for centuries. Today, momme weight is still the standard unit of measure used by most pearl dealers to communicate with pearl producers and wholesalers.

Cultured Pearls

It was a British biologist, William Saville-Kent, who developed the original process of pearl culture. Cultured pearls share the same properties as wild pearls. The difference is that a technician opens the shell and inserts the irritant which stimulates nacre production.

Seawater oysters have a round shell bead (traditionally from a freshwater mussel) grafted in as the irritant. Freshwater mussels have a small piece of mantle tissue (nacre producing tissue from another mussel) introduced as the irritant. This tissue desiccates leaving a solid pearl. Mussels are farmed in inland lakes and rivers.

Pearl colours

Pearls come in a variety of colors. Natural colors are mainly down to to the breed of mollusc. Other influences include diet, water temperature and pollutants. "Black" pearls are rarely black but blue, green, silver, grey, aubergine, copper, peacock and more. Green is the predominant color. Naturally colored black pearls come from the pearl farms of French Polynesia (Tahitian pearls) as well as Indonesia and the Philippines.

The price of pearls 

Jackie Kennedy's much-loved triple strand of glass pearls sold for over US$200,000 at auction in 1996. An identical replica set can be had for only US$99. In 1917 jeweller Pierre Cartier bought his company's Fifth Avenue headquarters in New York with $100 in cash and a two-strand natural pearl necklace valued at US$1 million. In 1957 the same necklace was auctioned for just US$157,000. Those were natural or wild pearls.

What pearls do you have?  

I have two ropes of cultured pearls which my mother has given me. They're both a graduated double row of pearls, very Princess Margaret, but need to be re-strung. I also have single row cultured pearl necklace and drop earrings from Mallorca and some large imitation pearls.

Image showing selection of cultured and imitation pearls

According to website The Pearl Market, my mother's pearls are sadly far more likely to be imitation than cultured pearls. It seems that a generation or two ago most people couldn't afford real pearls, so they wore fakes. You can get an idea from measuring the pearls. In the 1950's, 60's and 70's a typical size for cultured pearls was 4mm to 6mm. Graduated necklaces were popular - ranging from a central 7mm diameter pearl to 3mm pearls at the necklace ends. A necklace from this era with large pearls was either fake or vastly expensive.

I like the way large pearls can act as a dramatic focal point in a dark or plain coloured outfit.

Pearls in Fashion

Pearls have an unfair reputation nowadays of being mainly worn by "Sloaney" types (Princess Diana and Tiggy Legge-Bourke were prime examples) or the elderly. Occasionally they have a fashion moment: sometimes many long ropes of pearls is de rigeur, as seen on Rihanna below.

Jean Ghika, Head of Jewellery in the UK and Europe of Bonhams, which sells more jewellery than any other auction house, says: “We’ve seen a complete change in how pearls are viewed. A younger fashion set is now completely at home wearing classic pearl earrings, and you’re as likely to see them in nightclubs and premieres as you are at Ascot or the Epsom Derby.”

Rihanna wearing cascading ropes of pearls with Chanel logo

Demi Moore wearing varying ropes of pearls
Demi Moore

Celebrities and well-known figures such as Michelle Obama, Kate Middleton and Sarah Jessica-Parker have also helped to popularise the image of pearls.

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, in pearl necklace
The Duchess of Cornwall 


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  1. I love pearls, especially huge, faux necklaces. Great post! xo


  2. You've beautifully showcased a classic, time-tested fashion accessory. Love this post. Ps, thanks so much for adding us to your list of favorite blogs! Xo Jonet

  3. A pearl necklace adds a sophisticated touch to a casual outfit! It always means extra elegance...

  4. Love your outfit. The chunky pearls set it off beautifully.
    I wore a pearl drop and earrings on my wedding day, had to be done, and I felt they worked with the dress perfectly. A jeweller friend of mine advised me at the time to buy a good fake. So I did!

  5. At my first wedding I wire a pearl tiara and my "borrowed" was a pair of pearl drop earrings :-)

  6. I learned a lot about pearls here Gail. Interesting like diamonds, about the weight and colour. I was lucky enough to review some pearls earlier last year. Having never owned any I was really chuffed and I wear them quite a bit.

  7. It is great to hear so many women still enjoy wearing pearls. We are a fashion brand for women 40+ and we are launching our first line of handmade (made in the USA) faux pearl necklaces Feb. 1. Thank you for the education.


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