Friday, January 13, 2012

A Primer on Pearl Stringing

Need to know how best to care for your pearls?  Let’s begin with the foundation of the pearl necklace.  It is strongly advised that pearls be strung on silk or nylon cord with a small tight knot between each pearl, both to save wear at the drill holes, and to prevent loss of pearls if the strand breaks. Aesthetically, the pearls drape better when knotted.

How do you know if your strand needs to be restrung?  If you can move the pearl easily back and forth between the knots, if any pearl is slipping over a knot, if the thread looks frayed, or soiled, then it’s time to visit your professional pearl expert.

Silk cord made especially for the purpose of stringing pearls is used, in a color which most closely matches the color of the pearl.  Natural or cultured pearls of any type (freshwater, saltwater, akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, and so on) are thoroughly cleaned prior to restringing.

In the case of vintage costume or simulated pearls, special care must be taken to clean each bead individually, to avoid removing the pearlescent coating which is often quite fragile.  Cleaning vintage simulated pearls is risky, in that some loss of  coating may be unavoidable.  Once the peeling of the coating begins, there is no stopping it, and usually what’s left is an unattractive plastic or glass bead.  If your pearls are peeling, that is a sign that they are imitation, and neither natural or cultured.

If gold or other metal beads are added to the strand, the pearls will require more frequent restringing, a dark residue on the pearl and string will be left behind by the metal (especially gold), and the string will likely be frayed or broken by the edge of the metal bead sooner or later.  If possible, pearls strung with metal beads should not be knotted, but strung on a strong cord like Beadalon.  Small spacer beads can be used that look like knots, and perform the same function of protecting the drill hole as knots, but the spacers of course will not help prevent bead loss in case of breakage.

There are two basic methods for ending the strand of silk- or nylon-strung pearls at the clasp.  One is called “French wire” or “Bullion”, which consists of a tight coil of either gold-tone or silver-tone metal that slips over the cord to protect it from fraying against the metal connecting ring of the clasp.  It is the preferred method for fine quality pearls and gives a nice professional finish.   Sometimes, French wire cannot be used because of the size of the drill hole, or other factors.

he second method employs what is known as a bead tip, a cup which secures the last knot, and a hook attached to the connecting ring of the clasp.  The bead tip is useful when there is a possibility that the clasp will be changed or up-graded in the future, as restringing the whole  strand will not be necessary.  A type of bead tip known as a clam-shell covers the knot completely in exactly the way the name implies, and is often used on inexpensive beads.

When Beadalon or other cord is used without knots, the method of ending the strand of beads at the clasp is a crimp.  This is a little metal tube that fits over the looped end, and is crimped or flattened by a pliers, holding the ends in place.

Occasionally an older vintage strand will be seen that was not knotted originally.  These strands usually date from the 1940s or 1950s, most having been brought back by GIs or others traveling through the Orient at that time.  Knotting is still advised in this case, however it is important to note that the length of the strand will increase by at least an inch or two.

Often a strand of pearls will break near the clasp, and a common question is: “Can’t you just re-attach it without restringing the whole thing?”  The answer is, unfortunately, no.  The entire strand of pearls must be re-knotted.  Even if a pearl is left off, there is not enough thread to make a new knot to attach to the connecting ring, and to use glue only as the attachment is unreliable and certainly unattractive for a good  strand of pearls.  On long and inexpensive strands that can fit over the head without using a clasp, I have occasionally been implored to “knit” the ends together using a similar colored cord; it is an acceptable solution in very limited cases.

It is advisable to have only an experienced professional, often found through your local independent jeweler, restring your pearls.  It is a good practice to count the number of pearls, and have the jeweler measure them in millimeters at take-in.  It is likely that the pearl strand will be shorter after restringing, due to the knots being tighter between each pearl.

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