June’s Birthstones are Alexandrite and Pearls

June’s Birthstones are Alexandrite and Pearls


A naturally mined Alexandrite and 9 ct English ring from my personal collection. Judging by the Art Deco setting, I would place this ring from 1920 to 1940. It was hard to capture the colors with my camera, but the stones change subtly from dark green to dark purple in daylight.


Brooch, openwork gold, enameled in black set with diamonds and pearls, with pearls and diamond pendants. {Paris, c. 1860-70) V&A Museum

Click here to read my article on Alexandrite

Click here to read my article on Pearl Basics

Natural Materials

Natural Materials

The wide variety and beauty of the natural materials used in vintage and antique jewellery is staggering. It seems jewellery designers never cease in their inventiveness. Here is a list which I believe is comprehensive or almost comprehensive (there is bound to be something I have left out).

I have excluded metal as that seems to deserve it’s own separate list.



Animal parts (ie Rabbit Foot)

Bog Oak


Butterflies and insects



Flower and Plants

Gems & Gemstones








Sea Shell

Stone (Mosaics)

Tortoise Shell





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Pearl necklace lengths

” A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls” – Coco Chanel

To continue on from my post yesterday, ‘Pearl Basics’, I am going to discuss the names of the different lengths of pearl necklaces (and, in fact, all necklaces).


This measures 10 to 13 inches or 25 to 33 cm in length.  It sits directly against the throat and does not hang.  Collars can be a single strand or a multiple strands of pearls.

Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo by Rosalba Carriera, cir. 1740. Wearing a single-strand pearl collar and pendant pearl earrings

Pearl choker

This measures 14 to 16 inches or 35 to 41 cm in length.  It nestles just at the base of the neck.

Princess length.

This measures 17 to 19 inches or 43 to 48 cm in length.  It comes down to or just below the collarbone.

Matinee length

This measures 20 to 24 inches or 50 to 60 cm in length and it falls just above the breasts.

Opera length

This measures 28 to 35 inches or 70 to 90 cm in length.  It usually reaches the breastbone or sternum.

Pearl rope or Sautoir

This measures more than 45 inches or 115 cm in length. It is any length that falls down farther than an opera.

Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy is wearing a multi-strand choker and a rope of pearls, possibly with matching bracelet and earrings

Necklaces can also be classified as uniform or graduated. Freshwater pearls, Tahitian pearls and South Sea pearls must all measure to within a millimeter to be considered uniform. They are called ‘tin-cup’ when they are separated by lengths of chain.

Sources / further reading:




Pearl Basics

And my pearls are pure as thy own fair neck,
With whose radiant light they vie.


There is such a lot to say about pearls that I am just going to attempt to cover a few basics here and I will revisit this subject a lot more in the future. It really is a very extensive and truly fascinating subject. For example, did you know that pearl necklace lengths have their own individual names unique to pearl jewelry only? I am going to be exploring this soon as this is very relevant to us when looking at antique pearl necklaces.


Brooch, openwork gold, enameled in black set with diamonds and pearls, with pearls and diamond pendants
Paris, c. 1860-70
V&A Museum

Here are the ways in which pearls are commonly referred to and evaluated:


Natural pearls.

These can be freshwater or saltwater. The best known kinds are the saltwater oyster, the freshwater mussel and the freshwater conch.  It is very rare to find contemporary natural pearls for sale, particularly a matching set.

Cultured pearls.

These comprise the vast majority of pearls sold today.  They are ‘real’ pearls but created in controlled environments and grown at much faster rates that can occur in the wild. The only way to tell the difference between a cultured and a natural pearl is with an X-Ray

Types of cultured pearls commonly used in jewelry are:  Southsea and Tahitian or Black Pearls, Saltwater Akoya and Freshwater

Imitation pearls. 

Some imitation pearls are made of mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell and are referred to as ‘shell pearls’.  Others are made from glass coated with a solution containing fish scales called essence d’Orient. Yet others are made from plastic, resin or stone. ‘Mallorca’ pearls are imitation pearls.

Color of Pearls

Pearls  can be all colors from black to white.  Commonly, pearls are white, champagne, aqua, green, golden or black. Some cultivated pearls can come in exotic colors such as brown.

Overtone of Pearls

Within each color group, the pearl will have a particular overtone. Generally, the overtone of pearls are referred to in the following way: Silver, Ivory, Rose, Silver Rose, Light Silver, Dark Silver, Green, Peacock and Copper

Shape of Pearls

The ideal pearl is perfectly round.  Few meet this ideal.

Pearl shapes are referred to in the following way: ringed, baroque, drop, button, off-round and round.

Size of Pearls
Pearls are measured by their diameter in millimeters. They can vary from smaller than 1 mm (referred to as ‘seed pearls‘) to as large as 20 mm.

Surface of Pearls

The highest quality pearls have a mirror-like reflection.  The level of perfection of the pearl surface is referred to as the ‘cleanness’.

Luster of Pearls

This is the measure of surface reflection.  A good quality pearl is bright and you can see your reflection clearly.  Less high quality pearls will dull and chalky. If it is too white, it is low quality.

The luster or quality is referred to as either: A, AA, AA+, AAA

Nacre of Pearls

This is the natural iridescent material that the mollusk secrets.  Pearl nacre is only measured in salt-water, bead nucleated pearls.

Sources / further reading:




Pearl jewelry in art

Pearls have been worn throughout history and have rarely fallen out of fashion. Real pearls have a sublime beauty that is unrivaled. Unfortunately, there are so many imitation pearls on the market, that many contemporary women have a false impression of pearls as they have never actually experienced real quality pearls.  They are truly something to behold up close; women who have worn or owned good pearls will understand exactly what I mean. Sensual, mysterious and delicate, real pearls are a feminine treasure every women should have.

One of the things that I love about studying jewelry worn in old art is, not only can we enjoy the beauty of the great works, we can also get a good sense of how jewelry was worn and use this information for assessing pieces in the future. I think what is really interesting, in studying these old works, is looking at the lengths of pearl necklaces and styles of pearl jewelry in general through the ages.  This is something I will talk about more in the future, along with much more information about pearls in general. 

For now, here are some beautiful portraits of ladies with pearls. 

A diamond and pearl brooch captured in a portrait by the leading 19th Century artist John Singer Sargent is among a collection of Duke of Portland family heirlooms that are to be sold at auction for an estimated £6 million.

A diamond and pearl brooch captured in a portrait by the leading 19th Century artist John Singer Sargent is among a collection of Duke of Portland family heirlooms that are to be sold at auction for an estimated £6 million.

 Gustave Jacquet painting: An Elegant Lady with Pearls

Gustave Jacquet painting: An Elegant Lady with Pearls

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer

Portrait of Empress Maria Fiodorovna in a Head-Dress Decorated with Pearls
Portrait of Empress Maria Fiodorovna in a Head-Dress Decorated with Pearls
Kramskoi Ivan Nikolayevich
Location:     Hermitage Museum

Rosalba Carriera (Venice 1675-1757) Portrait of a young woman, bust-length, with a pearl necklace and earrings.

Seed pearls

Enlarge photo 98

‘Lover’s eye’ miniature, circa 1900, set with seed pearls.

A seed pearl is a tiny pearl, weighing less than a quarter of a grain.  Often imperfect, these tiny treasures required great precision from the jeweler.  Some of the holes were so tiny that horsehair had to be used to string them, silk being too thick. (I wonder if the labor required in working with seed pearls is one of the reasons they are not used as much today. Seed pearl jewelry was relatively inexpensive in the past because of the low cost of labor.) Arranged delicately around colorful enamel, painted miniatures, gems, corals, larger pearls or other natural materials and set in gold or silver, the pretty, delicate and sensual luster of seed pearl jewelry is a delight and one of my absolute favorite materials used in antique jewelry.


Carved horn hair comb with seed pearls c1905, Louis Aucoc

Pearls and seed pearls of course have been sought after throughout human history. In the Georgian era (1714 to 1830), seed pearls were particularly used in cluster rings, combined with precious or semi-precious stones.  Seed pearl jewelry was particularly popular in the early Victorian era (1840 to 1860) and continued to be used until the Edwardian era.  Seed pearl jewelry fell out of vogue somewhat when the bolder styles of the Art Deco movement came in around 1920, but has near truly gone out of fashion to this day. Victorian seed pearl jewelry was generally sold in sets of a necklace, two bracelets, earrings and a corsage. Interestingly, much of the work in seed pearl jewelry manufacture was done in Germany, although it was sold in England and elsewhere. Because people in the Victorian era tended to have a lot of children, these sets would normally get divided up so a complete set is much harder to find and much more valuable.  The finest and more delicate seed pearls were from China.

Seed Pearl Ropes

Seed pearl rope necklace, representing hours of labor.

Seed Pearl, Persian turquoise and gold ring, England, circa 1900

Seed pearls have the same characteristics as any pearl and may be cultured or natural.  Nearly all pearls sold today are cultured.  However, pearls from before 1916 when the pearl culturing process was first patented will be natural.  The only way to know for certain if a pearl is natural or cultured is with an X-Ray.  Many professionals devote their whole careers to grading and valuing pearls.  However, there are some home tests for telling if a pearl is at least an authentic pearl which I will discuss at a later date. Pearls are considered to be an ‘organic gemstone’ along with jet, coral and amber.