They are usually called jewels and are classed with gemstones, but pearls are some of the few jewels that aren’t stones at all but a by-product of an organic process (amber is one of the other rare organic jewels). Pearls are usually formed by oysters, although a few other molluscs are used in commercial pearl farming, including the paua (abalone) of New Zealand, which produces hemispherical blue pearls. But no matter where your pearls come from, or what colour they are – whether they are natural pearls, freshwater pearls or cultured pearls – you will need to care for them differently from other precious stones. Because they are not stones.
Pearls are made from calcium carbonate crystals, and as calcium carbonate is alkaline, it is very susceptible to acids. Remember the legend about Cleopatra dissolving one of her pearl earrings in vinegar and drinking it in order to win a bet with Mark Antony about who could serve up the most expensive meal? It is plausible, so the first rule for looking after pearls is not to try cleaning them with vinegar or any other domestic cleaning product. Yes, vinegar is a gentle cleaner for nearly everything else, but not for pearls.
Popular wisdom states that pearls grow more lustrous if they are worn frequently – as if we need an excuse to wear pearls! This is because the skin and the natural oils in your skin act like the finest of chamois cloths to polish them gently. However, while a little bit of natural oil from the skin is good for them, too much is not. Pearls can also be damaged by perfumes, so when you put on your pearls, put them on last, after you have applied perfume and moisturizer. If you have pearl rings, remove the rings before washing your hands or dabbing on hand cream. As handwashing is important, it is probably best if pearl rings aren’t kept for everyday wear but for special occasions.
Pearls will need to be cleaned a little from time to time if they get a bit too much natural body oils on them, as this will eventually discolour them or even make them look grimy. To clean pearls, just wipe them gently with a soft, damp cloth. Never use a brush, and it’s probably best to stay well away from commercial jewellery cleaning products, unless they’re clearly labelled as being suitable for pearls. Water will not hurt pearls – they are produced by an aquatic creature, after all – so merely pat them dry before storing them away. Do not try to dry pearls with a hair dryer, in the sunlight or in front of a radiator, as in their “normal” state, they should contain some water. If they lose this natural moisture (about 2% of the total pearl’s weight), they will lose some of their lustre at best, and crack at worst.
Store pearls in their own separate case rather than letting them knock against harder jewellery. Pearls scratch easily.
Pearls are usually strung on a real string, as a metal chain would abrade and wear the pearl away. However, this string can become quite discoloured from use, especially as the fibre the string is made from takes a bit more to get it clean. Periodically, therefore, you will need to restring (or have restrung) your pearls. According to some sources, if you wear them weekly, you should get them restrung every second year, and if you wear them less often than this, every four years is recommended. Having said that, this writer’s grandmother never restrung her pearls, and today they’re still looking lovely and the string isn’t worn or grubby (I’m not sure how often Grandmother wore these pearls, though!).
If you have the time on your hands to restring your own pearls, have little knots in between each pearl so they don’t rub against each other at their weakest point – the drill hole. If you don’t have the time and patience to do this (I, for one, do not have the time to restring an opera-length pearl necklace (up to 90 cm long)) then take them to a jeweller. A good jeweller will also tell you if they actually need restringing if you’re not sure.
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