Published: November 2011
by Antoinette Matlins, PG; Gem Expert & Author of The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide and Jewelry & Gems At Auction (GemStone Press)
Proper care is required to protect the beauty of fine pearls. The compact crystalline structure of pearls makes them very durable, but they are soft and this cannot be ignored.
• When putting pearls away, store them carefully, separated from other jewerly, to prevent scratching the pearl’s surface on sharp metal edges or prongs, or against harder stones. Never toss pearls carelessly into a purse or travel case. For temporary storage you can use a plastic bag with a seal to protect them, but do not store pearls in an airtight environment for any extended period of time; pearls need moisture and sealed plastic containers keep out moisture.
• Avoid leaving your pearls in a window unless protected from the sun by an awning. Intense sunlight shining through a window--and overly hot ights as well--can become hot enough to crack a pearl; sunlight also makes the air too dry.
• Avoid contact with various chemicals and household cleaners. These include vinegar, ammonia, and chlorine bleach of any kind; inks; hairspray, perfumes, eau de toilette, and cosmetics. Ammonia can be deadly to pearls. Keep in mind that many commercial jewelry cleaners contain ammonia, so they should be avoided for pearls. Also, many household cleaners contain ammonia, such as windex, so avoid wearing your pearl jewelry while cleaning. Put on pearls AFTER putting on hairspray, perfumes and cosmetics. These substances will spot or disintegrate the pearl’s surface. In strands or necklaces, they can also cause dirt and abrasive substances (found in cosmetics) to cling to the string; if not removed these abrasive particles can cause the pearl to “wear” at the drill hole and also to weaken the string, making it more susceptible to breaking.
• Wipe gently with a warm, damp towel before putting pearls away. This will remove body oils and perspiration that can cause discoloration or spotting, as well as other damaging substances that may accidentally have gotten on them (such as vinegar or lemon juice that could accidentally have splattered onto your pearls while eating).
• Periodic washing is recommended. While you shouldn’t have to wash pearls often if you wipe them off before putting them away, they will need to be washed whenver the knots between the pearls appear dirty. Place some mild liquied soap in a bowl with warm water and place your pearls in this sudsy solution. Wash them gently with a soft cloth. You may use a soft brush around the knots to better remove gritty dirt. After washing, the pearls should be rinsed in clear water and then wrapped in a thin, clean, damp cotton towel until the towel is dry (take a towel like a kitchen towel, wet it and then wring as dry as you can). When the towel is dry, the pearls will be dry, and you will avoid any risk to them. Never use jewelry cleaners containing ammonia, or any household cleaner containing ammonia, clorox bleach, or abrasives to clean pearls or pearl jewelry.
• Use clear fingernail polish remover (acetone) to remove gummy or caked-on dirt. Acetone based fingernail polish remover will remove heavy dirt. The acetone is the key ingredient. Acetone, unlike ammonia and vinegar, will not hurt pearls. Do not leave pearl rings or earrings, or any mounted pearl jewelry, immersed in acetone for extended periods, however, because it can weaken any glue that might have been used to secure the pearl in the setting.
• Avoid storing pearls in an excessively dry place. Pearls like moist environments; an excessively dry environment can cause the nacre on pearls to crack. Hot lamps and strong sunlight coming through a window can severely damage pearls. This also applies to storing pearls in a safety deposit box or vault. . These areas are very dry. If a safety deposit box is used, a moistened cloth can be left in the box with the pearls and checked periodically and re-dampened as needed. But don't overdo it; you don't want mildew to occur!
• Restring pearls periodically. If they are worn frequently, once every 12-18 months is recommended. Fine pearls should always be strung with knots tied in the space separating each pearl to prevent them from rubbing against each other (which can damage the nacre), or from scattering and getting lost if the string should accidentally break. One exception is with very small pearls, in which case knotting between each pearl may be aesthetically undesirable. Silk is recommended for stringing. Pearls should be strung immediately if you can move the pearls easily between the knots.
• Remove pearls prior to doing strenuous exercise or work. Perspiration is detrimental to pearls, but even more important, while quite tough, pearls are softer than most other gems and can be scratched by harder substances. Avoid wearing pearls whenever doing anything that could cause them to be scratched or knocked.
• Avoid using ultrasonic cleaners with pearls or pearl jewelry.. The solutions used in these cleaners may have chemicals that can damage some pearls, especially if the nacre is thin or if there are any surface cracks.
• Ionic cleaners can be used to clean pearls and the solution included with these cleaners is safe. However, if cleaning a necklace or bracelet, be sure to dry the strand(s) as recommended above.
Repolishing a damaged pearl may restore its former beauty. We have had excellent success removing slight pitting, scratches, and some spots from a pearl’s surface by polishing the damaged pearl with a very mild abrasive and a soft chamois cloth; gently rub the pearl with a mild polishing compound (such as Linde-A polishing compound, available from most lapidary supply houses) and the chamois. You may be pleasantly surprised at how you can restore a slightly damaged pearl to its former beauty. CAUTION: DO NOT DO THIS IF THE PEARL HAS THIN NACRE! SOME THIN-NACRE PEARLS HAVE SUCH A THIN LAYER THAN EVEN A MILD ABRASIVE WILL REMOVE THE NACRE AND EXPOSE THE SHELL NUCLEUS.
The following “myths”--stories or beliefs kept alive through family and friends--are widely held and need to be dispelled!
1. Pearls are not gems. False. A pearl is an “organic gem,” that is, a gem created by a living creature. As such, the pearl is one of the rarest and most prized of all gems.
2. Pearls won’t last as long as other gems. False. Pearls are not as hard as other gems but they have an unusually compact crystalline structure that makes them unusually durable, even moreso than many harder gems. Pearls can withstand knocks and blows that would break many other gems. As can be seen in museums around the world, there are pearls hundreds, even thousands, of years old that have retained their beauty; some of the most famous historical pearls are still bringing great pride and pleasure to their owners, and some are commanding record prices at auctions.
3. Pearls aren’t as romantic or important as other gems. False. Pearls are the most romantic and symbolic of all gems, having the longest and richest history of associations to life, love, health and happiness. The first gem associated with marriage is the pearl (that's right....not diamond)! And is it a wonderful metaphor for life, for it is something of beauty and value.... that can only be created by overcoming adversity!
4. Pearls aren’t as valuable or precious as other gems. False. Throughout history, the pearl has been valued as the “most precious” of gems. Remember the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra dissolved "one pearl" in her wine to prove her love for Antony -- her pearl being the most valuable treaasure she owned! Or in more recent history, the story of how the famous jewelry firm of Cartier obtained its regal structure on New York’s Fifth Avenue, in trade for a double strand pearl necklace! The necklace was valued at approximately $2 million dollars, as was Maisie Plant's mansion; she wanted the necklace and Cartier was looking for a larger NY location, and so they traded! And in the Spring of 2009, the Baroda natural pearl necklace feched over $7 million! Today, the cost of the finest South Sea cultured pearls rivals or exceeds many other gems, including diamond, ruby, sapphire and emerald, as seen in the $800,000 price tag on the Australian cultured pearl necklace that was over 5 years in the making by Australian producer Kailis.
5. Cultured pearls are created by man. False. Customers are often confused by the term “cultured” or “cultivated” and think it is synonymous with the the term synthetic, and thus, made by man. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cultured pearls are made by the oyster. The oyster, and natural conditions beyond the control of man, are primarily responsible for whether or not there will be a pearl at all, and if so, what its quality will be. While man starts the pearl-producing process by inserting a nucleus to act as the "irritant" that causes the mollusk to take actions that result in the creation of a pearl, fine pearls are the result of a very fragile and complex set of natural conditions.
6. Natural pearls are started when a tiny grain of sand gets into the mollusk shell. False. Natural pearls are started normally by a tiny sea parasite that bores its way into the shell, or by a piece of “relic” shell (old shell that breaks off and becomes entrapped in the mollusk’s tissue) or a shark's tooth or the tooth of some other sea creature. These often result in interesting “wing” and “stick” pearls. Shell is also what technicians use to form the nucleus of cultured pearls.
7. Antique pearls are always natural pearls. False. Cultured pearls have been commercially produced for almost a hundred years, and many “antique” pearls are, in fact, not truly “antique” but cultured pearls from the early 20th century. These may be difficult to distinguish without an X-ray. In addition, many pearls in antique pieces are not real pearls, but imitation! Remember, imitation pearls have been made for hundreds of years; Queen Elizabeth I, the “Pearl Queen” herself, used imitation pearls on her dresses when she didn't have a sufficient number of natural pearls to do the job!
8. Natural pearls are costlier than cultured pearls. False. Not always. It depends upon the quality and type of pearl. The finest, rarest large white cultured pearls can rival or surpass the natural in beauty and value while many natural pearls are unattractive, undesirable, and of little value.
9. “Black” pearls are natural pearls. False. Black pearls can be natural or cultured, and the color can be natural or dyed. Natural color black cultured pearls must be described as “natural color black cultured pearls;” failure to use the term “cultured” prior to the word “pearl” is misrepresentation and implies a natural black, natural pearl. Also, remember that natural pearls can be treated to obtain their black color; just because a pearl is a natural pearl is no guarantee that its color is natural. Buy black, or any fancy color pearl, only from dealers whose knowledge and reputation you can trust. If in doubt, seek verification from a respected gem testing laboratory.
10. Prominent people own only genuine pearls. False. Throughout history, we find imitation pearls among the jewels of the rich and famous. Even the Duchess of Windsor wore imitation pearls (that were almost sold at Sotheby’s as genuine cultured pearls). Of course, they also owned the real thing--magnificent gems to be sure. People also assume that inherited pearls are always “genuine.” This, too, is false. Don’t assume that pearls that have been inherited are genuine. Many people assume, erroneously, that pearls bequeathed to another must be genuine; after all, why would anyone bequeathe imitation pearls? Perhaps because they themselves didn’t know their pearls were imitation; or, maybe simply for sentimental reasons. Whatever the reason, they are often found in estates.