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Pearl Necklaces

Pearls are made from calcium carbonate. They are a gem formed by a living organism – the pearl mollusc – that lays down layer upon layer of this substance that we call “nacre”. Nacre is at most risk of being damaged by acid substances, harsh abrasives and the chemicals contained in perfumes and cosmetics. The alcohol in perfume is a great culprit and so are damp conditions. Just take a look at the pearl pendant that was found in the Cheapside Hoard.

Those pearls were fabulous once; big, expensive and perfect, but the conditions they found themselves in caused some to disappear completely and those that remain have become “lacklustre” (did you wonder where that expression originated Now you know!). Here is a quote from the Museum of London’s commemorative volume on the Cheapside Hoard exhibition:

“Though pearls feature prominently in inventories and portraiture, they are poorly represented in the Cheapside Hoard. This may be due to the conditions and length of burial, for many of the surviving pearls show marked signs of decay, and there are at least 1.356 empty settings for pearls, which either rotted away or were removed prior to burial.” [The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels”, Museum of London publication, 2013, Author, Hazel Forsyth, ISBN 978 1 78130 020 6]

Cleopatra is famously believed to have dropped a single, precious pearl into a cup of wine in a bet she had with Mark Anthony as to who could hold the most expensive banquet. Cleopatra won! The priceless pearl she dropped into the cup was dissolved by the acid in the wine: when the pearl had completely dissolved, Cleopatra drank the wine!

Cleopatra could afford to be extravagant with her pearls but I prefer to look after mine, so how do I do it?

First and foremost, I never apply perfume after I have put on my beloved pearl necklace. Spraying perfume onto a string of pearls is the quickest way to destroy them and I know that the alcohol in the perfume will eventually eat into and dull down the lustre of the beads, so, if I am wearing perfume, I put it on first and wait until the alcohol has evaporated off my skin before putting the necklace on. Unfortunately, most cosmetics contain chemicals that are not exactly pearl-friendly, so it’s best to exercise caution when applying makeup to your neck and chest area if you are going to wear your pearls against bare skin. After removing your pearls, run them through a soft cloth. Your pearl provider may well have included a soft cloth of the type used for polishing spectacle lenses, so do use this every time you take off your pearls and don’t store them with traces of makeup or the oil from your skin on them.

Next, it’s a good idea to store the pearls in the packaging they came in – a box, a velvet or silk presentation bag and the like. The nacre on pearls is easily scratched by being stored, hugger-mugger, with chains, brooches and metal jewellery, so store them separately. If you are wearing a pearl ring, like the gorgeous mabĂ© pearl a friend of mine was given, never wear it when you wash your hands and never let it anywhere near washing-up liquids or harsh detergents.

We can try our hardest to look after our prized possessions, but with the best will in the world, sometimes things get grimy and need to be cleaned. As a last resort, pearls can be washed in warm, soapy water but the soap must be pure soap like Lux Soapflakes. They can be brushed gently and carefully in this pure soap water using something like a baby’s hair brush: they must never, ever be scrubbed with a hard-bristle brush. Rinse them in clean, warm water and pat them dry in a towel and then let them dry in the open air but never on direct heat so, whatever you do, don’t try to speed up the drying process by using a hair dryer or putting them onto a radiator. Heat is the next big destroyer of pearls after acid and damp conditions!