Cultured pearl necklaces are available in more varieties and silhouettes than most consumers realize. Not only do the pearls themselves come in different diameters and shapes, but the strands are also available in two major styles: graduated and uniform. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the differences between these two styles, so you can decide which one is right for you and plan your pearl purchase accordingly.
In a graduated strand of pearls, the largest pearl is placed at the center of the strand. From the center to each end, the pearls on a graduated strand get progressively smaller in size, so the pearls that lay on your chest will be larger than the pearls that touch the nape of your neck beside the clasp. Typically, these graduated cultured pearl necklaces have less variability in length and pearl size. The standard version is 16" long with approximately 85 pearls, and it starts with a 7-8 mm pearl in the center before it transitions to the 3-4 mm pearls positioned towards the back of the necklace, closest to the clasp.
On the other hand, with a uniform strand of pearls, every pearl will match in size and shape, within a .5 mm range in size difference. These pearls can be as small as 3 mm and as large as 8.5 mm.
Graduated strands of pearls were most popular in the 1940s and 1950s, so your grandmother or other older relative likely owned this type of necklace. Why did they become so desirable during this time? To understand the prevalence of this style, we must first examine the history of pearl production at the time.
When the “Pearl King” Kokichi Mikimoto created the world’s first cultured pearls in 1893, he helped bring pearls to a more mainstream consumer, since natural pearls were becoming a limited resource. To meet demand for his exciting new innovation, the cultured pearl industry began to flourish in Japan, and by 1938, there were 360 active cultured pearl farms in Japan producing nearly 11 million Akoya cultured pearls.
Even with all this pearl production, Japan still was not making enough pearls to create uniform pearl strands for the masses, since the process to make these strands requires matching many pearls of near-same size and shape. Before the 1950s, nearly all cultured pearl strands were graduated. Despite the fact that they were easier to make at the time, due to the available resources, it’s actually quite difficult to choose the right-size pearls for an attractive graduated strand.
Once cultured pearl production became more established, and jewelry manufacturers were more readily able to access cultured pearls, they began making uniform pearl strands. As a result, graduated pearl strands fell out of fashion for a short period of time, but they have returned as a popular, vintage-inspired look.
When you build your first Add-A-Pearl necklace, you’ll want to decide between a graduated and uniform cultured pearl necklace strand. What you choose will depend mostly on personal preference, though you can consider your loved one’s lifestyle and personal style. For example, someone with long hair may not care for a graduated pearl necklace, since the pearl size differences would be difficult to notice when she wears her hair down. On the other hand, a graduated necklace might offer a more unique bespoke look since no two necklaces will ever be exactly the same. Or, if you don't plan on ever completing the necklace, the graduated style might be more suitable and pleasing with center portion full of pearls and the remaining part consisting of chain. If your loved one enjoys layering her jewelry, then she might prefer a uniform pearl strand, since it provides more versatility in layering and lengths. Uniform necklaces can easily be made longer or shorter by adding a few more or less pearls depending on the individual's desire. Finally, if your loved one enjoys a vintage aesthetic, she may prefer a graduated strand, since it has a retro, post-war feel. Regardless of what you choose, your personalized pearl necklace will be a meaningful jewelry gift that she will treasure forever.