A PRIMER ON PEARLS
Pearls are created by oysters (or, in the case of freshwater pearls, mussels) when an irritant enters the shell. The mollusk surrounds the foreign object with layer after layer of calcium carbonate bonded by a protein called conchiolin—a combination known as mother-of-pearl or nacre. The crystalline layers refract light, creating the pearl's luster and iridescence. Naturally occurring pearls are very rare and highly prized. The majority of pearls on the market are cultured, meaning their creation was assisted by man.
Pearls are evaluated for size, color, luster, complexion and shape. It takes a highly trained eye to accurately assign value to a pearl.
In general, the larger the pearl, the greater its value. The size of a pearl is limited by, among other factors, the size of the mollusk.
Pearls come in a full spectrum of colors, from white to black, with pink, green, bronze, champagne and a host of hues in between.
Complexion refers to the smoothness of the pearl's surface. No pearl is likely to be flawless, but all high-quality pearls should be free of discolorations, scratches, chips and cracks.
A pearl's luster is it radiance and glow, caused by the light reflecting off the layers of nacre at the surface and below. A high-luster pearl next to a low-luster pearl will look like satin next to crepe de chine.
The most classic and highly valued shape for a pearl is round; the more symmetrical and near to perfect the better. However, both saltwater and freshwater pearls occur in a variety of beautiful shapes, including:
CARING FOR YOUR PEARLS
There's an old maxim that "pearls like to be worn", and it's true. They respond well to air and even to contact with the skin. Pearls are also among the most wearable of gems, as right with a t-shirt as they are with an evening gown. But in order for them to keep their beauty and luster for generations, proper care is essential. Here's a basic guide to treating your pearls well.
Between wearings, wrap your pearls loosely in a soft cloth (or slip them into a jewelry pouch) and store them away from sunlight or heat. The box in which you store them should be secure, but not airtight. As some museums have discovered the hard way, pearls can dry out—losing their luster and even cracking if they are not exposed to air.
Hairspray, perfume and other chemicals can damage nacre, so apply them prior to putting on your pearls. If possible, apply your perfume where the pearls will not rest against it. Perspiration can also dull pearls over time, so it's best not to wear them when you'll be exercising vigorously. And don't wear them while swimming. Not even in the ocean.
If you wear your pearls often, you should have them inspected at least once a year to see if they need to be restrung. How often they'll need cleaning and restringing is really a matter of how frequently you wear them and in what condition.
After each wearing, wipe your pearls with a soft cloth (slightly damp, if necessary) before putting them away. If they've gotten a little dingy, immersion in a bath of water and dissolved baking soda (one teaspoon of baking soda stirred into one cup of water), followed by a thorough rinsing in clear water will brighten them up. The moisture will also, temporarily, tighten the silk on which they are strung. Lay them flat to dry (do not hang them).
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