Classic Jewelry: How to Wear Pearls

Pearls are some of the most ladylike, versatile, and fashionable elements you can have in your wardrobe. Their simplicity and timeless style make them the perfect accessories to add that extra bit of expression to your ensemble. But there are a few things you should keep in mind when deciding what styles and occasions you will use to show off your pearls.

Types of Pearls

There are many different types of pearls. The look of your jewelry depends a great deal on what kind of pearl is used in its design.

  • Akoya

These cultured pearls are primarily produced in Japan. They were the first spherically shaped cultured pearls to be introduced to the jewelry markets. These pearls are usually white or cream in color with a rose overtone. Renowned for their luster, Akoya is considered the classic pearl. When one envisions a perfectly round, shiny white strand of pearls, one is almost certainly envisioning a strand of Akoya pearls. Akoya pearls were the first cultured pearls to be farmed using a bead and mantle tissue technique patented by Kokichi Mikimoto of Mie Prefecture, Japan, in 1916.

  • Freshwater

These pearls are primarily produced in freshwater lakes, rivers, and ponds of China. They can be produced in a variety of shapes and pastel colors. Although the traditional source of pearls has been saltwater mollusks, freshwater mussels, which live in ponds, lakes, and rivers, can also produce pearls. China has harvested freshwater pearls in the form of mabe since the 13th century and has now become the world's undisputed leader in freshwater pearl production. The first record mentioning pearls in China was from 2206 BC. The United States was also a major source of natural freshwater pearls, from the discovery of the New World, through the 19th century, until over-harvesting and increasing pollution significantly reduced the number of available pearl-forming mussels in the U.S.
  • Tahitian

Tahitian pearls are produced in the black-lipped oyster Pinctada margaritifera, in and around Tahiti and the French Polynesian islands. This oyster itself is quite large - sometimes over 12 inches across and weighing as much as 10 pounds - which often results in much larger-than-average pearls. The pearls are unique because of their natural dark colors. Most "black" Tahitian pearls are not actually black but are instead silver, charcoal, or a multitude of colors with the dominant color being green. Truly black pearls are extremely rare.

  • South Sea

Cultured in Australia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, South Sea pearls are one of the largest available on the market. Their coloring ranges between white and a deep golden color. South Sea pearls are among the largest commercially harvested cultured pearls in the world. The average size of a South Sea pearl is 13 mm, with most harvests producing a range of sizes from 9 mm to 20 mm. The South Seas lie between the northern coast of Australia and the southern coast of China. These waters are the native habitat of a large oyster known as Pinctada maxima. This oyster grows up to 12 inches in diameter and can be nucleated with a much larger bead than other saltwater oysters such as the Akoya. South Sea pearls have a soft, satiny luster that comes from large aragonite platelets and rapidly deposited nacre due to the warm waters of the South Seas. South Sea pearls also have a subtle array of colors; typically white, silver, and golden, that are rare in other pearl types.

  • Keshi

A Keshi pearl is a non-beaded pearl formed by accident as a by-product of a pearl culturing operation. Keshi pearls are formed when the oyster rejects and spits out the implanted nucleus before the culturing process is complete, or the implanted mantle tissue fractures and forms separate pearl sacs without nuclei. These pearl sacs eventually produce pearls without a nucleus. Keshi may form in either saltwater or freshwater pearls. They are generally small in size and, because there was no nucleus to guide the ultimate shaping of the pearl, their shapes vary widely. Keshi come in a wide variety of colors and tend to have high luster and even rare orient. This is due to their solid-nacre composition. Because the oyster has expelled the implanted nucleus of the pearl, the resulting Keshi pearl is 100% nacre. This gives it an especially lustrous and shimmering surface quality. Most Keshi, in fact, have a greater luster than even the highest quality cultured pearls.

Pearl Shapes

Because pearls are natural organic substances, they occur in a wide variety of shapes, many of which are quite unique and interesting. Every pearl has a slightly different shape. The round pearls you most commonly see are by no means the only shape in which pearls are found! Indeed, perfectly round pearls are actually quite rare. This is because the eventual shape of the pearl is determined by a number of highly variable factors, which occur inside the oyster as the pearl is developing. For example, the pearl often assumes the same shape as its nucleus (the bead which was placed inside the mollusk to initiate the formation of the pearl). If the nucleus is not perfectly round, the resulting pearl is likely to reflect this irregularity. In addition, the pearl's positioning within the mollusk also plays a role in determining its shape. If the pearl develops against the shell, for example, it will become more flattened on that side.

Caring for Your Pearls

Pearls are the world's only organic gem and are composed of calcium carbonate. This means special attention is required to ensure pearls will stay beautiful and last a lifetime. Because pearls are an organic gemstone, they are somewhat different from other gemstones and precious metals. They are softer and more delicate, and they can, therefore, be more easily scratched, cracked, and damaged. In addition, substances such as perfume and hair spray -and even natural body oils and perspiration -can dull pearls' luster or cloud their brilliance. For these reasons, your pearls may require a bit of special care. It's a good idea, for example, to apply perfume, hair spray, and other cosmetics before putting on your pearls. In this way, you can minimize a number of these products that comes into contact with the pearls. After wearing your pearls, wipe them with a soft damp cloth to remove any traces of cosmetic products or body oils. Wash the pearls periodically with a mild soap and a soft cloth, to remove any accumulated build-up.

To prevent strand breakage, it's a good idea to have your pearls restrung periodically -perhaps once a year or so if you wear them often. Knotting the strand between each pearl will prevent all of the pearls from falling off the strand in the event the strand breaks. Also, knotting prevents the pearls from rubbing against one another and causing damage. A little bit of care can go a long way toward ensuring that your pearls remain safe and bright for years to come!

How to Wear Pearls

Times sure have changed since the way in which pearls were once worn and by whom, but for all that passing of time, the affinity for these beauties hasn’t faded. Today, there are new cultured pearls to wear and new ways in which to wear them: twisted, layered, wrapped or knotted. In fact, when it comes to cultured pearls, there’s only one fashion rule now—wear them anytime, anywhere and with nearly everything. Mix colors, lengths, shapes and sizes, even origin too, from South Sea and Akoya to Freshwater and Tahitian. Wear a single strand or two, or three. Why not ten to mix and match?


The Long and Short of It

Throughout history pearls have had their ups and downs—some generations wore them longer, while others opted for a collar. Over five hundred years ago, during the Great Age of Pearls, fashion leaders wore ropes of pearls with shorter strands in-between. Today, that same spirit is shared in the fashion world, as our New Great Age of Cultured Pearls calls for strands of differing lengths (or a versatile rope of cultured pearls) to achieve the look that reflects the present.

Some favored lengths and styles to wear together or solo:

  • Collar: 12-13 inches – Usually three or more strands of pearls with a single clasp.
  • Choker: 14-16 inches – A single strand worn "tight" around the neck.
  • Princess: 17-19 inches – A single strand worn long enough to show a bit of throat.
  • Matinee: 20-24 inches – A longer single strand for lower necklines.
  • Opera: 28-34 inches – Worn as a single strand or doubled as a choker.
  • Rope (Sautoir or Lariat): over 40 inches – Knot or loop it. A single rope can become a double or triple strand.
  • Bib Necklace: A necklace with three or more strands that fit together like a bib.
  • Convertible Necklace: Two or more strands that clasp together to form a single unit. The individual strands can be worn separately, attached or in bracelet/necklace combinations.
  • Graduated Necklace: The size of the pearls gradually increases, with the smaller ones near the clasp and the largest in the center.
  • Uniform Necklace: All the pearls are nearly equal in size, with a variation tolerance of .5mm (1/50 of an inch) or less.

Pearls are the essential adornment today, whether worn with jeans and a T-shirt or dressed for a gala. Suited, booted, and anywhere you're going, they’ll get you there in style. One strand does it all, while 100 inches of pearl power gives you fashion by the yard. Whether looped, knotted, or layered, there are over a dozen looks with a single rope of glorious lotus pearls.

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