I’ve always loved wearing pearl jewelry. Something about it is timeless, and it goes with everything from denim and a plain tee to a black tie evening gown. Worn by royalty and those living along the sea for millennia, pearls have an inherent value beyond the monetary, and their unique shape means no two are ever the same. Unlike diamond or other precious stone jewelry that require skillful cleaning and careful storage, when worn frequently, pearls are very simple to care for properly once you know how to do so. In this guide, I’ll share my tips for ensuring your pearl jewelry stays lustrous and bright for generations to come!
What Are Pearls?
Natural pearls don’t form around irritants like sand that wind up inside a mollusk, as most people think. Instead, they’re generally the result of an injury to the shell that transports shell-forming cells into the “body” of the mollusk. This can happen when a mollusk is pierced, or parts of its shell are misaligned.
When these cells end up in the wrong place, they essentially grow the shell of the mollusk inside out. The general structure of a mollusk shell is in three parts. There’s the nacreous layer which is the innermost iridescent layer of nacre, what we call mother-of-pearl. This prismatic layer is the middle layer of chalky white seashell similar to porcelain and the protein-rich outermost layer with a rough texture that usually is dark in color and acts as a protective skin. When shell cells are misplaced, the order of these layers is reversed, so the inside is the protein-rich part, the chalky middle remains in the middle, and the nacre, the beautiful shiny part, grows as the outermost layer. It’s no wonder natural pearls are exceptionally uncommon in nature and, therefore, precious.
Pearls can range from almost perfectly round to oblong and even rectangular, depending upon how large the pearl grows and what its cells form around. The variety of shapes, colors, and sizes is part of their charm. However, pearl dealers and jewelers will compare thousands or more pearls to find similar ones that will be practically indistinguishable from one another when stringing pearl necklaces, pairing sets for pearl stud earrings, or selecting pearls for other purposes.
Manmade pearls, on the other hand, are made by inserting shell cells around a round or spherical core inside a living mollusk. They grow as usual and then are later harvested. The mollusk is broken open, the pearl is harvested, and the interior is used for food. Shells, when not served with the interior as part of the food presentation, may be harvested for their mother-of-pearl shell lining.
How to Care for Pearls
Manmade or cultured pearls should be cared for in the same way as natural pearls. Since pearls are so rare, most commercially available pearls are cultured pearls. Double-check with the jeweler you purchase your pearls from on how to care for them. They may offer you additional advice on how to care for the pearls they’ve sold you.
Wear Your Pearls Often
While pearls should never be submerged in water (more on this later), they should be worn often to keep them moisturized. They’ll look more lustrous, won’t dry out, and become dull or fragile if they’re in frequent contact with the skin’s natural oils and moisture.
Last On, First Off
When my mother passed on some of my grandmother’s pearl jewelry to me, she taught me this. It’s standard advice amongst pearl enthusiasts and refers to the. practice. of ensuring pearls are the last thing you put on as you dress and the first you take off when undressing. This helps pearls avoid contact with lotion, perfume, hairspray, or other cosmetics that could coat them in residue. It also helps them not get snagged, stretched, or scratched while dressing.
Wear Appropriate Clothing
This isn’t a judgment about modesty of any kind but rather a reminder to ensure that the pearl jewelry you select won’t rub against rough trim, beadwork, sequins, zippers, or other harder jewelry that could scratch or damage pearls. Pearls are relatively soft compared to other precious gems, and therefore, great care should be taken to ensure their safety when dressing and going about the day.
Keep Pearls Dry
Keeping pearls dry and ensuring they’re not exposed to any damaging or harsh chemicals like chlorine will protect the color, luster, and longevity of your pearls. Don’t shower with pearls on, swim, enter saunas, or sit in hot tubs with pearl jewelry. The heat from saunas and hot tubs can not only cause damage and degradation to the stringing components of pearl necklaces, but it can also loosen the adhesive on other pearl jewelry like studs or mother-of-pearl bracelets.
If your pearls become wet in the rain, ensure they are fully dried before storing them to prevent discoloration. If you have strung pearls, ensure the string or cord holding the necklace together is completely dry before wearing them, or it may stretch out.
Have Pearl Strands Restrung Annually
Once per year, frequently worn strands of pearls should be restrung. This will not only keep them looking new but will also prevent distortion of the pearls themselves and prevent them from breaking if the cord becomes too weak and loose. This can be done by the artisan who made the string of pearls or by a qualified jeweler.
How to Store Pearls
Before storing your pearls in the short term, gently wipe them down with a soft, non-abrasive cotton jewelry cloth to remove any sweat or other impurities. Ensuring pearls are clean after each wear prevents them from staining or becoming dirty.
Pearls should be stored flat in a dry place without being exposed to direct sunlight, but not somewhere that is airtight, or else they will dry out. Ensure that wherever you store them, they will stay dry and not be damaged by other jewelry. I like to store my pearl jewelry either in an open-air jewelry display case or in a silk-lined jewelry box that I open daily. The pearl jewelry I store in my bank’s safe deposit boxes is rotated regularly so that it won’t dry out.
Ensure that no matter where you store your pearls, the space is neither too hot nor too cold and that you store them in something fabric lined to prevent scratching. Silk, velvet, satin, and cotton all work to keep pearls safe and protected. Do not store them in plastic or wooden containers, as these can damage them and prevent adequate airflow. Remember, pearls need to breathe!
How to Clean Pearls
As I mentioned above, check your pearls for damage and impurities after each wear. If you are able to see and treat stains quickly, you can save your pearls from permanent discoloration. Should anything make your pearls dirty, carefully use a mild, unscented, undyed soap and a damp (not wet) cloth to wipe it off. Keep your pearls as dry as possible during this process, and ensure they’re thoroughly dried before storing them.
I hope all of this advice helps you care for your pearls for years to come!
My Favorite Pearl Brand
I have some beautiful pearl jewelry from Julie Vos, one of my favorite jewelry brands, and her gorgeous jewelry has become something I wear every single day! I absolutely love the femininity, timelessness, and craftsmanship of these jewels. They’re so lovely, and their numerous collections, like Marbella, Trieste, and Cannes can all be effortlessly intermixed, which means I can mix one collection with the next without the styles clashing. They’re so unlike any other jewelry out there, and in addition to pearl jewelry, they have eye-catching colorful glass gems as well.
Keep an eye out for more of my Julie Vos collection, and check out all of the places I’ve featured the brand on my blog!
This ‘How to Care for Pearls’ guide was created with gratitude in partnership with Julie Vos.