Pearls are some of the very earliest gemstones used for adornment and have decorated humans for thousands of years. Pearls are produced by shellfish known as molluscs; these include saltwater oysters and freshwater mussels. To form a natural pearl, damage to the soft tissue (mantle) in the inside of the mollusc - caused by parasites, disease or attack - is coated in layer after layer of a substance called nacre. Eventually these nacre layers create the lustrous round or off-round sphere we recognise from our jewellery. Pearls can also be cultured by man, and in this case small beads or small pieces of mantle are implanted into molluscs to kickstart the nacre covering process.
Pearls can be natural (very rare) or cultured (created for over a century, since the early 1900s, and very common). Cultured pearls are real pearls and are not the same as simulated pearls which are usually plastic. Both natural and cultured pearls can come from saltwater or freshwater shellfish. They can be while, golden, grey, brown or black. In addition, there may be various iridescent tints to pearls including pinks, greens, blues and lilacs.
Saltwater pearls are grown in oysters in oceans, seas, gulfs and bays. The best known example of a saltwater pearl is the Akoya which can range anywhere from 1-10mm in size. Another well known saltwater pearl is the South Sea Pearl, which tends to be larger than the Akoya at 9-19mm. Freshwater pearls, on the other hand, come from mussels in rivers, lakes and ponds. Blister pearls, which grow on the inside of the mollusc shell rather than in the mantle, are left with one flat side when cut away - they range from small to large in size. And seed pearls are tiny pearls that measure less than 2mm. These pearls are commonly found as decoration in antique jewellery such as brooches, lockets and pendants.
Pearls can be round, near-round, semi-baroque (which include pear, egg and button shaped) and baroque which are very distorted and irregular in shape. One of the things that attracts humans to pearls is their unique, creamy lustre, which broadly defined is the way the light interacts with the surface of the gemstone making it shine. Pearls vary in lustre depending on nacre thickness and other factors - the more lustrous a pearl, the more valuable and desirable.
Antique Pearl Jewellery
There are some particularly famous pearls dotted throughout human history. The 450 carat Hope Pearl is one one of the largest pearls ever found. It's actually a blister pearl, cut from the shell of a mollusc and believed to come from the Middle East, around the Persian Gulf / Red Sea. Another pearl - La Peregrina - is a beautiful drop shaped pearl, discovered off the coast of Panama by a slave sometime around 1550. From Spanish Kings to British Queens, the pearl has travelled the globe. In the 1960s, it was purchased by Richard Burton for his wife Elizabeth Taylor. Cartier designed a new necklace for the pearl, setting it with diamond and ruby, to really show off its beauty. Following Taylor's death, the pearl was auctioned again and now resides somewhere in Asia. Moving on, the Abernathy Pearl is a beautiful and near perfectly round freshwater pearl that was found in Scotland in a mussel in the River Tay. Nicknamed Little Willie, the pearl is about the size of a marble and weighs 11 carats. The pearl can be found on display at Cairncross Jewellers in Perthshire. And what about Anne Boleyn's pearls? The doomed 16th century English queen had a signature long pearl necklace that she can be seen wearing in many of her portraits. The single strand pearl necklace is further embellished with a gold letter B, under which hang three more pearls. A personalised pearl piece! Pearl studded gowns were also popular during this period for the very wealthy and royalty. Finally, Black Beauty is a natural black pearl believed to have been found in South America, possible Venezuela or Equador. The high domed, button shaped pearl weighs 6.53 carats and has fabulous, rainbow coloured overtones known in the trade as 'peacock'. The black pigment comes from the mantle of the oyster, and colours the nacre so. This pearl is now owned by a pearl company in USA.
Pearl Pendants, Lockets & Necklaces
We frequently find beautiful antique and vintage pearl jewellery, in particular pendants, lockets and necklaces with a central coloured gemstone surrounded by small seed pearls. The Victorians used pearls to maximum effect in their yellow gold jewellery, and they adorn many star brooches, heart shaped lockets and floral necklaces. They are a lovely softener to more traditional, harder gemstones. And by the Edwardian era it was common for Belle Epoque jewellery to feature both diamonds and pearls set in platinum. The soft and gentle vs the hard and strong. And pearl of course, is the soft material and a great deal of care needs to be taken when wearing the gemstone. Pearls must never be allowed to get too hot, and gentle cleaning should happen with a damp cloth only. Storage of pearls must be done in such a way that harder gemstones or metals cannot rub against and mark them, and storage is recommended in breathable fabric, where normal moist air can reach them so they don't dry out. Plastic tubs and so on are not recommended for storage, neither is hanging the pearls because the stringing thread may stretch.
Antique Pearl Brooches & Bangles
Small seed pearls are commonly found set into antique brooches, usually to contrast and compliment a larger central coloured gemstone. Similarly, seed pearl bangles were popular both with the Victorians and Edwardians, usually but not always with coloured stones set into them as well. As the one of the birthstones for June, pearls are considered an emblem of modesty, chastity and purity. More than that though, pearl is also supposed to symbolise love, success and a happy marriage, and in many countries pearls are worn by the bride as earrings and/or necklace during her wedding, or presented a wedding gift. Particularly popular are graduated pearl necklaces: many pearls strung together usually on silk thread. Large single pearl pendants are also particularly well suited to special occasions.
Vintage Pearl Rings
We love vintage pearl rings! As a soft material, great care must be taken when wearing these stones on the hand, but pearl works so well set into gold and platinum that's it hard not to own at least one pearl finger ring! At the turn of the 20th century, it was common for pearls to be set into gold bands with either turquoise or coral, and we love to source these beautiful items when we can. A small point of note regarding antique pearl rings: pearls cannot tolerate the heat of the jeweller's torch, so the ring cannot be resized. When buying an antique pearl piece, you must stick with the size you find it in, otherwise the pearls will need removing which will likely damage them so much they will need replacing.
Why buy antique pearl jewellery?
There is a magic with antique and vintage jewellery that we just do not find with modern pieces. Lovers of old jewellery seek this magic, and it's definitely a joy not shared by everyone. But those who buy antique pearl jewellery do so because they love the mystery and intrigue that comes with their jewellery. When you put that pearl pendant necklace around your neck, or pin that antique pearl brooch to your jacket, you could almost be transported back 100 years to the cobbled streets of Victorian/Edwardian Britain. The magic in vintage pearl jewellery is simply knowing that the piece has been worn and loved before, many many times, and has lived through so many momentous periods in history that if only we could time travel, we would surely go back and see ourselves. Antique jewellery is a piece of history with a past far longer than our own, and we can't wait to add our chapter to its story!