Pearls…who doesn’t love pearls? They are timeless, can be elegant or trendy, depending on the style, but how much do you know about pearls?
In the beading world there are basically four types of pearl: plastic, glass, freshwater and cultured. The chances are, you won’t ever be lucky enough to work with true natural pearls. These are the most expensive variety that have been grown naturally in oysters in the sea. Although, having said that, as I discovered at a wonderful exhibition devoted to pearls, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the demand for pearls is now such that there is an entire industry devoted to farming cultured pearls. Interestingly, much of this centres in Japan, although there are an increasing number of pearl farms cropping up in China. It used to be that finding a natural pearl involved a dangerous dive to the bottom of the ocean, to retrieve an oyster and take a lucky dip as to the pearl it contained. The main centre for this industry was historically based in the Gulf. For those of you who don’t know, a cultured pearl is formed when a small organism (eg worm), finds its way inside an oyster shell. The oyster shell is made of layers: the outer hard casing, an inner mantle or skin, and the organs inside. The mantle is programmed to secrete cells that form the calcium carbonate or hard outer layer. If a small creature finds its way in between the shell and the mantle, the creature will eventually die, but in the process it triggers the mantle to start secreting the hard cells around it, so the casing builds into a pearl taking on the shape of the creature inside. Natural pearls can therefore be the most incredibly irregular and interesting shapes. Very few are perfectly round, hence their enormous value. Humans worked out how this biology operates and now use it to implant regular round shaped objects into empty oyster shells, to create ‘cultured’ pearls. This is still a time-consuming process as the shell takes years to cultivate a large pearl, hence the higher cost of larger pearls. Freshwater pearls are created on the same principle, the only difference being that the oysters live in freshwater, so it has been relatively easier to farm them, making them less precious.
Mostly, as a beader, you will find yourself working with glass or plastic pearls. These are available in a huge range of colours and sizes. They also come in a variety of shapes. The traditional round pearl is hugely versatile. It can be used to add interest to embellishment, or worked in a bead-weaving stitch in its own right: a simple Right Angle Weave pattern is particularly effective. Of course, there is nothing more elegant than a simple string of knotted pearls, and this is a surprisingly tricky technique to master. If you fancy having a go, there is a free pattern available here.
If you want great quality, then go for glass pearls: Swarovski have developed a particularly good quality glass pearl, that comes in a range of colours and sizes, but there are also cheaper brands on the market.
Plastic pearls are basically a round plastic bead that has been coated in coloured paint. They are great for a project that uses a large quantity as they are both very cheap and very lightweight, so for example, if you wanted to embellish a dress or top with a lot of densely embroidered pearls, then it would be worth investigating plastic pearls so as to avoid adding too much weight to your outfit.
Pearls can be used as a centrepiece for beadwork, combined with seed beads. If you are interested in these kind of ideas, then you might like to try the patterns for this floral pearl necklace or these pretty little dahlia beaded beads.
If you’re looking for some different effects, then there are a few different types of pearl you can consider. Keishi pearls are long and narrow and can be centre-drilled or top drilled. They are often available in bright colours, but don’t be fooled – this is usually a dye, so take care to check its durability as dyed beads can easily lose their colour over time. Also common are rice pearls and potato pearls – both look a little like a grain of rice. The position of the hole through the pearls can also be used to create different effects: a top-drilled pearl means that the hole sits through the upper quarter of the pearl, rather than through the centre, so stringing these pearls may lead to a natural curve as you are stringing through a narrower part of the pearl, pushing the fattest part into a curve.