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Published: Sunday, 10/25/2009

Pearls are just naturally beautiful

Here's a fashion quiz.

What accessory is simple but elegant, a product of nature but copied by man? It is worn by the world's famous and by commoners, is mentioned in the Bible, and because it symbolizes love and purity, it is the favored wedding jewelry.

The answer is pearls, the timeless piece of jewelry that always seems to be the right choice to match everything. That may be why Jackie Kennedy Onassis often wore pearls, and Barbara Bush is rarely seen without a pearl-like necklace. Michelle Obama is also showing a taste for pearls that complement her slim, sleeveless dresses and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, sports colored pearls.

The subject came to me while watching Senator Edward Kennedy's funeral Mass on TV. Most of the Kennedy women were wearing pearl necklaces and many also wore pearl earrings.

We know that millions of oysters die so that we can enjoy pearls. But what else do we know? Pearls can be cultured, natural, or synthetic. They can be tiny seed pearls or large globes. Most are white, or off-white, but black ones are treasured. You can buy them at the best jewelry stores and list them as a family heirloom to pass down. Or you can pick up an inexpensive necklace, tagged as pearls at a discount store and put them in the garage sale in a couple years.

There is even a language for different styles according to how the pearls hang around the neck. A collar, usually several strands, is 10 to 13 inches, sits directly against the throat, and does not hang down at all. A choker is 14 to 16 inches long and nestles at the base of the neck. A strand is princess length, 17 to 19 inches long, and comes just below the collarbone. The matinee length is from 20 to 24 inches long and hangs just above the breasts, compared to the opera length, which is 28 to 35 inches and is long enough to reach the breastbone. Still longer is the pearl rope at 45 inches long.

David Cameron, owner of Broer-Freeman Jewelers, adds another length, the very tiny pearls that are sold for children from birth through the formative years. Pearls are produced within the shell of an oyster and are composed of the same material as the shell of the creature. The pearl is made of layers of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form.

Ideally the perfect pearl is round, but there are other shapes. The perfect pearl also is iridescent. Luster is the most important factor in determining its value. The larger the pearl the more valuable it is. Other considerations are color, lack of surface flaws, and symmetry.

Natural pearls, are rare and are often used singly rather than in multiples in a necklace.

Most pearls today are cultured, or farmed, but for many years pearl hunting was the common way to harvest them from river bottoms and ocean floors. Divers retrieved oysters and checked each one for pearls. In three tons of oysters, three or four pearls may have been found.

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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