Antiques column, Michael Dowse: Why pearls haven’t lost their lustre


In the past it was more often than not the ‘more mature lady’ who wore a string of pearls and was always heard asking: “Has anyone seen my pearls?”

Well today, although that same mature voice can still be heard, the popularity of the pearl has grown so much that today’s wearer can be absolutely any age.

Although pearls are actually an organic substance they are classed alongside precious gems.

Pearls are formed when a foreign body is present inside a pearl oyster. The oyster covers the irritant in thin layers of nacre until a pearl is formed.

The amount of layers and thus the thickness of the coating varies; the thicker the layers the more lustrous the pearl.

This natural process forms natural pearls with principle pearl beds laying in the Persian Gulf, along the coasts of India and in the Red Sea.

However, the pearl-making process can also be manmade with foreign bodies inserted.

These cultured pearls have been very popular since the 1920s.

They look like natural pearls but are considerably less expensive.

It can be incredibly difficult to tell the two apart.

Freshwater pearls are formed by various types of shellfish and lack a glowing lustre and shine having a much duller surface more like porcelain.

They are not as popular or expensive as the saltwater variety.

A pearl’s weight is measured in grains, similar to how gemstones are weighed in carats: 1 grain is ¼ carat.

The most highly prized pearls are perfect spheres with smooth, unblemished skin with iridescent lustre.

Pearls are soft and if worn regularly on a string will get worn down rubbing against each other.

They should ideally be strung on knotted silk which prevents the rubbing and also acts as a safety device in case the string should break.