Monday, June 14, 2010

Pearls, Pearls, Pearls

As I mentioned last week in the weekly update (known fondly to us around here as the "blurb") - we have a boatload more pearls coming. (62 types this week) These are from Marg's buying trip in Tucson in February. The thing about pearls is, that given the way they are made - i.e. by an animal! - they don't pop out consistently from batch to batch, so even if you go out to buy pearls with some serious specifications in mind - OK - I need 6 mm rice pearls in pink, some 4 mm round in light cream, and maybe some 8 mm potato peacock pearls - they aren't going to look the same as last time.

The end result is that every time we buy pearls, I re-photograph them and re-describe them for you, going through each type individually, and trying to write a description that allows you to have a fighting chance of buying them online and getting what you expect. I try to keep the descriptions with some common frames of reference - so maybe I'll just describe that a little bit here.


There are some fairly well-defined pearl shapes - but the pearl growers are always trying to tempt our jaded bead palates with new stuff. Most of them seem to be a swing and a miss - weird shapes stuffed into oysters with the hope that a layer of nacre will make them beautiful. From crosses to Buddhas - the pearly coating doesn't get evenly distributed or cracks at the corners - some of these are downright nasty. We avoid these in favour of more classic and beautiful shapes.
  • Rice - a long shape, longer than wide. Oval, really.
  • Round - the classic pearl - and, hard to find perfect rounds at affordable prices. I don't use the term round too often.
  • Off Round - close to round, just a little off. Many of these will pass for round at a distance.
  • Button - flat on one side - they are sometime drilled (where the hole is) from side to side, making them look buttony, or from top to bottom, making them look like donuts or rondelles. "Mabe" is also used to describe a pearl that is flat on one side and domed on the other - but my background in vintage jewelry makes it hard for me to think of Mabe as anything other than a cabochon-type pearl. Having a hole seems at odd with the Mabe (pronounced Mah-bee, btw, rhymes with Hah! See!) description, so I prefer not to use it for drilled pearls (pearls with holes.)
  • Biwa or Stick - Long spiky sticks or wide flat bumpy rectangles - which, if not lustreous and nice, look distressingly like fingernails torn off some ghastly monster. I love these pearls - they have texture and interest. As far as I'm concerned, just multiple strands of these are fabulous. Let them speak for themselves - but consistent with everything I prefer - they tend to be expensive.
  • Potato - another term for oval. Can be a little on the lumpy side, like a potato. Can be drilled end to end or side to side.
  • Oval - another word for - er - oval. I tend to use oval for pearls that are obviously oval, and potato for the more amorphous ovals.
  • Keshi/Cornflake- like flakes, tend to be curvy or a little cupped. These, like the Biwa/Stick pearls have a fair amount of texture.
  • Coin - originally - a flat, puff round. Then we started seeing shapes, such as stars, squares, flowers. But usually - this is just a lentil shape.
  • Baroque - Baroque means oddly or irregularly shaped, so can be combined with other shapes, i.e. Baroque Rice is lumpy ovals.
  • Bullet - technically - this is also an oval - but some pearls, especially those with top drilled (off centre) holes look more bullet-like.

  • Smooth - smooth is - well - smooth. It's nice. But it drives the price up. It takes longer to grow a smooth pearl.
  • Ridgy - Oval pearls often have ridges in the center, around the middle. Any of you who grew up on or near a farm and remember chickens laying those huge eggs with the ridges around the middle, that made it look like the chicken had to stop for a rest in middle of the laying process - that's what these pearls remind me of. ;-) (see photo for sample). There is some sort of marketing term for these - "Rings of Love" or something - a sales term used to try and convince you that they are desirable. They aren't a bad thing. They just are what they are.
  • Blemish - blemishes look like burst bubbles or rough spots. They can add interest, or, if you are going for the smooth, classic look, really detract.


It is a given these days that all pearls are "enhanced" to some degree or another, unless the vendor specifically makes a point of telling you that they are naturally coloured. And given the language barriers (most cultured pearls are made in China) - we might not believe claims to natural colour anyway. Even the white and cream ones may have been lightened to increase their value. But the good news is that the colour enhancements are permanent - it's not like it's going to wear off - so you might as well enjoy them. I note where they look natural - which means that you could easily believe that they were a natural colour - as opposed to those that are obviously not. But unless I tend you "these are natural coloured pearls with no enhancements" - assume that they have had some sort of beauty-enhancing spa treatment. (Oh, like none of us have tried to improve our looks either?)

  • Peacock - grey - with a pink/green lustre
  • White - duh, white
  • Cream - not white, a warm colour
  • Ivory - darker than cream
  • Champagne - off white, like a cream, but color in hue
  • Pink - A pale pink
  • Peach - warmer than pink, a hint of orange


What makes a pearl so wonderful, so outstanding, is lustre - that warm, indescribable glow - that play of light off the pearly layer known as nacre. Lustre is the raison d'etre of pearls. We try not to buy pearls that are dull and lifeless (although there is one in this batch that is sort of intriquing in it's dullness) - but some pearls are more pearly than others. I use "Medium Lustre" or no reference to indicate an acceptable, if not remarkable degree of lustre, and "Nice Lustre" to let you know that these ones will catch your eye a lot more.


Pearls are made by molluscs, living in conditions that manufacturers try to control, but hey, they are out there in the water. Unless you grow them in indoor swimming pools, it's hard to control. So they do a lot of sorting and grading to come up with consistent products. You can have them very consistent or affordable. Pick one. In some cases, one or more of colour, shape or size may be more or less consistent for the sake of making the other characteristics more consistent. Example: You can have them all the same colour if you are prepared to be flexible on size.

You can, of course, sort the pearls and cull them - using the best ones for the more visible parts of your creation, and putting smaller, oddly shaped or slightly different colours to the back where they are not so visible.

Drilling Pearls Yourself

Finally, a note about increasing the size of the hole in the pearl. Pearl holes are notoriously small, (they come sold by weight from the grower/manufacturer - bigger holes means less profit.) Pearls are soft, and you can use a bead reamer to enlarge the hole sizes if you need to. But - DO THIS UNDERWATER. You do NOT want to create conditions where you breathe in pearl dust. It will get into your lungs and damage them. Pearl dust is dangerous, and you do not want to breath it. Period. Exclamation mark.

Hold the pearl to be drilled under the surface of a small container of water - like a small tupperware dish filled with warm water (warm is easier on your fingers) and poke the bead reamer into the hole, and rotate or twist it around. Pull it out, and bring the pearl above the water to inspect it. Discard the water after - don't let it sit around until it dries out - that's missing the point entirely. The water controls the dust.


And - having now processed all these pearls - if Marg brings back more from Bead and Button - I shall scream!

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