Words, Pearls and Inches

Pearls gathered in hanks can be matched to make collars, Matinee Strands, or even go to the Opera...
Pearls gathered in hanks can be matched to make collars, Matinee Strands, or even go to the Opera…

Words have a habit of outlasting the things they describe sometimes. When was the last time you actually dialed a phone? Or hung up a phone? We’ve cut the cord, dumped the dials and yet… the words live on like a broken strand of pearls rolling across the floor.

Jewelry is full of phrases like that. Phrases that have lived on because they meant something once. Phrases that in a way still mean something, but aren’t really rooted in a world we live in anymore. Blame fashion, blame changing fashions… Blame the fact that fashion helps sell jewelry, but a good piece of jewelry –and even a not so good piece of jewelry– can outlast any fashion. And so we come to the twenty-first century. We sell pearls to women who plan on wearing them with their bluejeans –because it is better than never wearing pearls at all– and yet… the words we use to describe those pearls were mainly standardized before movies had sound.

Classic near-round pearls... pick your length!
Classic near-round pearls… pick your length!

Think about that for a minute. Forget the digital revolution, forget the Space Age, forget the New Look, the Second World War, the New Deal… forget it all. March back to an era of black and white photographs, atlases you unfolded across your knees to find Japan and the home of the lustrous beautiful delicate white pearls that revolutionized the jewelry world almost a hundred years ago today, and it is there, and there alone, that terms like Matinee Length, Princess, Opera, Choker and Collar begin to make sense.

Ignore the romance and the history for a few minutes and let us get down to the nitty-gritty inch based facts of the matter for a few seconds.

An “Opera Length” strand of pearls is traditionally a loop anywhere from 28 to 34” long.

A “Matinee Length” strand of pearls –occasionally known as an “afternoon length”– is traditionally a loop anywhere from 20 to 24” long.

A “Princess Length” strand of pearls is traditionally a loop anywhere from 17 to 19” long.

A “Choker Length” strand of pearls is traditionally a loop anywhere from 14 to 16” long.

A “Collar Length” strand of pearls is traditionally a loop anywhere from 12 to 13” long.

Reality has a way of making rules seem a little out of touch though. Traditionally “Opera Length” had nothing to do with inches and everything to do with the fact that it was usually the longest length available. I have seen 62” strands of pearls referred to as “Opera Length” –gorgeous, eye catching, and technically an unromantic “Rope” of pearls. Collar and Choker are also variable terms these days because one woman’s “Collar Length” strand of pearls could literally choke another woman.

A better rule of thumb has to do with the way a necklace is worn. Basically, anything between 12 and 16” is usually meant to be worn next to the skin. (Those lengths usually aren’t long enough to be worn over a collar.) The Princess Length was briefly re-marketed as a “Businesswoman’s Length” in the 1980s –conservative and classy, it was chic when paired with a turtleneck and blazer for the classic ‘80s look.
These days we generally use both a term and an inch length to describe our pearl necklaces. But we are glad the old terms endure… because I am sure if we made up new terms today they would be utterly meaningless in another hundred years.

In German "Perl" is used as a synonym in the jewelry industry for any bead... "Pearl Lengths" don't just refer to pearl necklaces!
In German “Perl” is used as a synonym in the jewelry industry for any bead… “Pearl Lengths” don’t just refer to pearl necklaces!