Discover seed pearl jewelry and learn why bigger does not always mean better.
Seed pearls are named based on their size - or rather their lack of
size. They are pearls with a diameter smaller than 2 millimeters.
Some people get fooled by the word "seed" and think there is something special about where these pearls come from or how they are cultured or grown. Not so. It is all about how small they are.
Now some people may immediately wonder "Why would something so tiny be more - instead of less - valuable?"
The answer is that their small size makes
them very difficult to work with.
Therefore, these exquisite, delicate, very detailed pieces of jewelry have an automatic rarity. They simply cannot be mass produced.
The innate value and rarity of seed pearl pieces is well explained in this interview with an Antiques Roadshow expert on jewelry valuations for seed pearls.
Of course, pearls come in a wide range of sizes. Those that weigh less than one quarter grain are called seed pearls. In pearl terms, one pearl grain equals 50 milligrams or one quarter carat.
As we explained, the small size means that makes making seed pearl jewelry is very difficult and time consuming. That is why you don't see a lot of new seed pearl creations today. Most seed pearl pieces you find comes from the Victorian age, when these tiny beauties were most popular.
During Victorian times, seed pearl designs were commonly sold in sets which consisted of a choker-style necklace, two bracelets, set of earrings, one small brooch and a corsage-type ornament or large spray.
In a round design there was usually a larger button pearl, weighing up to five grains.
In an elongated configuration the foundation would be made of three bigger pearls with a fairly nice luster.
At the time these sets were valued at about $1,000. Today, you would be hard pressed to find a complete set. Most have been broken up and sold separately.
The meticulous work of creating seed pearl jewelry was almost exclusively done by German girls. With today's wages and the higher price of pearls, that type of work can not be duplicated for affordable prices.
A machine has not yet been invented to string pearls the way small hands can. This makes creating jewelry from seed pearls for retail markets impractical.
However, as with most things, where there is a will there is away. See this article on making your own jewelry from seed pearls.
Just how time consuming and difficult was all this?
For example, the stringing of seed pearls on the popular design known as the English scroll meant at least 12 hours of work. Due to the character of the work and lack of adequate indoor lighting, work could only be done in the bright sunlight. You had to be able to see the holes in the tiny pearls.
A worker would get about $3.50 per day for this intense labor. Today, that would be at minimum of $10 per hour. But, keep in mind, this is barely the tip of the iceberg of all of the work that went into making jewelry from seed pearls.
Before the pearl stringing could even begin, a design or drawing first had to be made. Then a pattern or brass plate was cut with spaces to indicate where no pearls were to be placed. After this a mother-of-pearl was laid out and pierced where a pearl was to be attached.
The design would outline which type of pearl was to be used where. Pearls were then carefully selected and the whole kit and caboodle was handed over to the pearl stringer. The pearls were strung together with specially selected horsehair thread.
The pearls used were purchased in strings or bunches costing, in 1908, about $40 per ounce. Silk was not fine enough to pass through the tiny holes, that is why horsehair was used. Out of all of the horsehair purchased, only about half was suitable for fine jewelry. This all brings the cost of production to quite a high amount. Good thing labor was cheap.
We are now already into several hundred dollars, but we aren't done yet! After the pearls have been strung according to the prescribed design, the jeweler attached a pin or catch, added his profit and put the seed pearl jewelry on display. In today's market, the cost of producing seed pearl jewelry is far greater than what you can sell it for.