By Llyn L. Strelau
Pearls are perhaps my favourite gem! There is something magical about these gifts of nature. They can be subtle and velvety soft, or dramatic and brilliantly metallic. The immense variety of colour and form offers unending scope for jewellery design.
For some people, pearls still present a traditional image: grandmothers in cashmere, first ladies of days gone by, or blushing brides. Today’s pearls run the gamut from elegant to edgy and are worn by stars of both the large and small screen, fashion-savvy women from every walk of life, and even confident gentlemen.
Colours range from the deepest Tahitian, Fijian, and Cook Island blacks to pristine whites from Australia and Japan, golden pearls from Burma and Indonesia, and metallic freshwater pastels from China. Recent introductions of cultured abalone pearls from New Zealand, steely blue Akoyas from Vietnam, and a host of colours from Mexico’s west coast, have joined existing sources to provide an even greater variety that complements every complexion. In short, pearls never cease to inspire me as a designer.
More colour than meets the eye
Within each pearl category, there is not only an amazing range of base colours, but an infinite array of overtones. While called ‘black,’ South Sea Tahitian pearls can actually range in body colour from jet black through grey or shades of brown, green, gold, or blue. Freshwater pearls entice in pink, purple, orange, blue, bronze, or copper, while the base colour of white pearls can exhibit tones of silver, cream, blue, or gold. A pearl’s real magic, however, is in the orient, the complex overtones that overlay basic body colours with a mysterious shifting iridescence of aubergine purple, rose pink, emerald green, shimmering gold, or sapphire blue—literally every colour of the spectrum. Often, there is only a single colour, although in rare instances, you may see multiple colours in subtle combinations reflecting the hues of a peacock’s tail.
In addition to the complicated colours of pearls, an amazing variety of shapes exist—perfect classic spheres, buttons, elegant drops, and a menagerie of baroque shapes. The latter can be incredibly inspiring, akin to looking at clouds to reveal what a seemingly random form may become with a little imagination, not to mention metal or gemstones.
When selecting pearls, lustre is the most important quality to look for; a brilliant reflective metallic appearance is indicative of a high-quality gem. Japanese Akoya pearls grown in cooler northern waters can display a mirror-like surface. Most South Sea pearls have a softer velvety lustre, although the very best can exhibit brilliant reflections, drawing the eye into the depths of their mystery. Surface finish is also important. Unblemished pearls are rare indeed, but with careful examination, you can choose pearls whose ‘beauty marks’ can be hidden or even incorporated into a design.
Pearls alone are beautiful to wear, whether as simple stud earrings, a drop pendant, or a luxurious strand. I love to combine them with white and coloured diamonds, and especially with coloured gemstones. These pairings can be complementary or contrasting, and either can result in a piece that is greater than the mere sum of its parts. Pearls are often the initial inspiration for my designs and I may incorporate gemstones as accents. Occasionally, though, gemstones are the impetus and pearls just seem to add the crowning touch. On these pages are some recent designs illustrating the interplay of pearls, metal, and gemstones, creating pieces that run the gamut from classical to pure whimsy.
‘Who are you?’
It does not pay to argue with Mother Nature! While browsing the vast collection of a dealer’s pearls at a recent Tucson show, I was confronted by a multi-nucleated Chinese freshwater pearl that could be nothing other than a caterpillar. By coincidence, this was the year two films inspired by Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, had been released. The die was cast for the creation of a fantasy brooch/sculpture entitled, ‘Who are you?,’ depicting the cranky, hookah-smoking creature from Wonderland (see page 1). A bit more searching uncovered another pearl perfect for the hookah pipe, while a collection of small South Sea button-shaped Keshis would eventually become baby mushrooms.
Back at the shop, I formed a gold and silver mushroom, as well as the caterpillar pearl, with demantoid garnet used for spots along its body, brown diamond for its eyes, gold shaped into wire-frame glasses, and a jaunty fez to place on top of its head. Although the entire mushroom is a functional brooch, it rests on a stand made of a ‘looking glass lens’ of crystal quartz, allowing the piece to be displayed as a sculpture or executive desk toy.