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Playing with Pearls

Look for luster, play with cluster - Pearls are just as popular today as they were centuries ago.


Ever since the first lustrous pearl was discovered inside a gnarly shell, we’ve been coveting them and finding new ways to wear them. From Queen Elizabeth I to Vermeer’s servant “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (the painting that inspired a movie), women of every social class have lusted after a perfect pearl – or a string of them.


Contemporary jewelry artists and fashion mavens are no longer obsessed with perfect symmetry when it comes to pearls. We embrace the odder shapes and are constantly finding fun ways to design around them and wear them.


Pendant of sterling, pearls and stones

Pearls’ timeless beauty and rich history make them as desirable as ever, but they’re more abundant now because we’ve learned to produce them in a more controlled environment.

They still contain the luster that once caused people to risk their lives diving for them and rulers to pass laws restricting them to the noble classes. But now they’re available in prices and quantities even commoners can afford. And if freshwater pearls don’t suit, Swarovski offers a lustrous crystal version. 


Jewelspan artists are making beautiful jewelry out of all of it, from classic rounds to crazy-shaped freshwaters and fabulous fakes. Pendulum Design used freshwater pearls, for example, to crown this sterling silver pendant (top right).


For studio jewelers, odd-shaped pearls provide bulk, luster and exquisite color at a fraction of the cost of a perfect round. Such pearls are often labeled rejects and priced accordingly. After all, what’s a production jeweler going to do with a pearl shaped like a lightbulb or a science project gone awry? At the very least, calibrated settings are out.

Dunluce Gemworks used a variety of freshwater pearls to add color, texture and form to this multi-strand necklace:


Necklace of freshwater pearls by Dunluce GemworksAbundance of Pearls 18" necklace of freshwater pearls with sterling

magnetic clasp from Dunluce Gemworks, $249


Designing with odd-shaped pearls

Designing jewelry around an odd-shaped pearl is nothing new. Renaissance jewelers were famous for building elaborate and bizarre pendants—mermen, dragons and ships—around blobby masses of baroque pearl. Later, Art Nouveau jewelers found asymmetrical pearls suited their organic themes. German designers built ornate butterflies around lumpy masses of nacre, while Tiffany and the French designers transformed oblong pearls into graceful flower petals, seedpods and the bodies of dragonflies.


Today’s designers use pearls in a similar way, either building a piece around an unusual shape or taking advantage of their luster and spherical form. Pearls still serve as both accent and centerpiece. But unlike in centuries past, they’re more likely to embellish jewelry that reflects contemporary art, with more references to science and abstract form than Lalique et al. Here's a beautiful example by Jewelspan artist Linda Rettich:


Sea Fan Collar by Linda Rettich

Off-loom bead-woven Sea Fan Collar with pearls and vintage seed beads

by Linda Rettich


Don’t overlook the rejects. Pearls are often labeled this way due to flaws in the nacre or inconsistencies in shape and color. For the studio jeweler, this can be a way to get what designer Sam Shaw calls “more show for the money.” Some of the most visually arresting pearl pieces on Jewelspan were designed around pearls that would once have been tossed aside as “rejects.” Look at them as nacre-covered sculptural forms and build the design around shapes and textures. 


Necklace of freshwater cranberry baroque pearls with sterling snake clasp by Shelia Logan

Necklace of freshwater cranberry baroque pearls, silk-knotted with

sterling snake clasp by Shelia Logan


Look for luster. Buying pearls requires a different sensibility than buying gemstones. Look for pearls that feel silky to the touch. The most important thing is the luster. A pearl should glow as if lit from within.


Play with clusters. One great way to take advantage of odd-shaped pearls is to cluster them in designs. Jewelspan artist Linda Rettich does this to brilliant effect with her Sea Fan collar necklace, in which she clusters freshwater pearls so they look like they just washed up on shore.


Strands vs. singles. When buying strands, look for variegated pearls with at least some variation in color. If you need perfectly round pearls, consider Swarovski crystal pearls. In one necklace, Jewelspan designer MingoMama encages Swarovski faux-pearls in sterling wire cages, so what you see peeking through look like the finest South Sea pearls.


In single pearls, look for luster and size – as much as you can afford. Big, luscious pearls make the best centerpieces but they don’t have to be perfectly round – in fact, oblong shapes can work great for art jewelry.


Adapted with permission from an article by Cathleen McCarthy on The Jewelry Loupe.

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