Pearls are beautiful, no doubt about that, but they are also a bit of an abnormality in the gemstone world. Made from layers of calcium secreted by bivalve mollusks, pearls are hard enough to be beads but all those layers that give pearls their beauty also give them fragility.
Pearls come in a wide range of colors & shapes depending on the type of critter that makes them, the nutrients in the water and the growing time. Typically, pearls secrete approximately 1mm of nacre every year. That can decline with pollution, lack of nutrients or food, and water temperature. Most pearls on the market today are cultured, meaning that the pearls are grown in aquaculture “farms” where these factors can be more closely regulated. South Sea pearls or “wild” pearls are all natural, they are found by pearl divers (remember reading that in high school?) and are therefore more expensive and often larger since they are not harvested at set intervals like cultured pearls.
When designing with pearls, their fragile nature needs to be taken into account. Be careful about what type of beads are strung next to pearls…metal with sharp edges or faceted crystal can scratch the fragile nacre on pearls. Pearls have been traditionally strung on silk; the silk knots between each pearl cushion the beads so that they do not rub up against each other. The silk is fantastic for pearls, but does create some storage and wear issues. Strung pearls should be stored lying flat, not hung; just that little bit of gravity pulling on the knots can cause the silk to stretch. Pearls on silk are also more susceptible to dirt & stains. Pearls are really not great fashionware for gardening. The silk can get dirty quickly, and there is not cleaning method...once the silk is discolored it's time to restring. Even with careful treatment, pearls on silk typically need to be restrung every 5-10 years.
Look for lots of new pearls in the shop as well as tips on designing and knotting silk. Next week...the legend of birthstones.