Pearls haven't lost their luster

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Mikimoto lent fine pearls to be worn in the movies Legally Blonde 2, Girl with a Pearl Earring and Memoirs of a Geisha, the cultured pearl manufacturer quietly helped in the revival of a classic. Like the little black dress, pearls never go out of style; but recently, these lustrous, softly glowing gemstones have become fashion forward.

That's because, says Mark Coleman of Nelson Coleman Jewelers in Towson, the industry has been revolutionized in the last five to 10 years by the introduction of Chinese freshwater pearls. They have flooded the market, and prices have dropped. As a result, 22 percent of Coleman's jewelry sales are now pearls. (Until recently, the Japanese were the undisputed leaders in pearl production.)

Chinese cultured pearls come in various shapes and in colors as diverse as peach, green and yellow. For the most part, the quality is high.

"They are fun, beautiful and unusual," says Coleman. "They fill the gap in what I call 'dressy casual.'"

Natural pearls these days are so rare as to be collectors' pieces. When an irritant, like a grain of sand, becomes embedded in an oyster, it secretes nacre, a calcium carbonate-based substance, which builds up in layers and eventually forms the pearl. Cultured pearls are created when the bead is deliberately introduced, but the formation of the pearl is just as natural. The difference can only be seen by X-ray.

When buying pearls, suggests Antoinette Matlins, author of The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide, you should go to several fine jewelry stores and study their pearl jewelry first. "It doesn't take long to train your eye," she says. "Some pearls are mesmerizing and some are just 'eh.'"

The intense luster is what gives pearls their magical beauty. A high degree of this glow from within will tell you how thick the pearl coating is and therefore how well the pearls will last over time without chipping, cracking or peeling.

Pearls are the one gemstone man doesn't have to improve on, but unlike other jewels, they are organic and therefore fragile. Here are some ways to keep your pearls as beautiful as they were the day you bought them:

Apply perfume and hairspray before you put on your pearls.

After wearing, wipe with a soft damp cloth to remove body oils or cosmetics.

Store away from other jewelry to prevent scratching.

Wash with gentle soap and warm water periodically.

Have necklaces restrung periodically, even once a year if you wear them often.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

SPLURGE OF THE WEEK

FOLK ART

Folk-inspired floral patterns, zigzag and wave designs shouldn't work together, but they do. It's a new line of tops and tights created by two fashion powerhouses: Italian design firm Missoni and Austrian hosiery and lingerie maker Wolford. Bright colors, lace, soft cottons and high-tech fabrics are all part of the mix. The result is a collection of playful works of art that double as comfortable clothes. Look for the Missoni-Wolford line in February at the Wolford Boutique in Tysons Galleria in McLean, Va., 703-448-5586. For more information: wolford.com.

RETAIL PRICES: range from $75 for tights to $430 for a pullover.

BREATH OF SPRING

FEELING BLUE

One of the freshest looks we've seen for spring involves fall's hottest colors, teal and brown, and pairs them in an exotic print called Java Blue. Check out Vera Bradley's new Java Blue line of quilted cotton handbags and accessories. They will be available this month at Kokopelli, Towson Town Center; Sweet Papaya, Belvedere Square; the Wilmington Country Store, Ruxton; and other area shops. Shown: Toggle Tote in Java Blue, a carry-all with comfortable handles.

RETAIL PRICE: $53

STORE OPENING

URBAN CHIC

8180 Maple Lawn Blvd., Fulton

301-490-9952

If you love designer clothing and great denim -- especially worn together -- Urban Chic is the store for you. The trendy Georgetown boutique (even Barbara and Jenna Bush shop there) has opened a second location in Fulton, in Howard County.

Geared to young professionals and students, Urban Chic has an extensive selection of denim, including brands like Citizens of Humanity, Rock & Republic, True Religion and Joe's. You'll also find clothing lines by Diane von Furstenberg, Juicy Couture, Twelfth Street by Cynthia Vincent and more.

Urban Chic items have been featured in In Style, Teen Vogue and Lucky, and the Georgetown store was the setting for a recent episode of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

The Fulton boutique's hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

The Inspirations page rotates among four weekly themes: fashion, gardening, home decor and body. Send suggestions to harry.merritt@baltsun.com.

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