Hello Elizabeth. While I have never tried to dye real pearls, I
spent many years working as a costumer for several of the most
prestigious performing arts organizations in the US, and was
considered one of the best theatrical dyers in the country.
That being said, let’s deal with a bit of chemistry. The acid dyes
that you mention are designed to dye protein (silk, wool, etc). The
nacre of a pearl is calcium choalinate–not a protein–which is why
you are getting pastels. Unfortunately, chemistry is chemistry and
there is no way around it. Acid dyes also require the addition of
an Acid assist–typically Acetic Acid (can use vinegar, but at 3
times the recommended amount since it is diluted) or Citric Acid.
Mordants open the fiber so that it can absorb a dye, but assists
help complete the molecular bond between the dye and the protein.
If you did not use the acid, adding it might improve the situation,
but I doubt it. I also do not think a Mordant would help. If you
decide to try the acid, do a test first as I am not sure how it will
affect a pearl.
With regard to Rit, it is usually the first choice for non cellulose
(plant), non protein (animal), or synthetic materials. It is what
is referred to as a union dye (no refernce to labor unions here),
because it unites several different types of dyes (direct dyes (for
cellulose), acid dyes, etc). Thus it is a sort of “catch all”.
There are other types of dyes, but many of them are far too
hazardous outside of an industrial environment.
The last element needed to produce vibrant colors is usually heat
and we know how pearls react to that–enough said.
One technique that you might consider, depending on how high-end
your pieces are, is called French Enamel Varnish. Again, I have
never done this with a pearl, so test first because it may ruin the
pearl. Anyway, you will need shellac, denatured alcohol, and dye
powder. Take two parts shellac and one part alcohol. Dissolve the
dye completely in the alcohol then mix it with the shellac. You can
then dip the pearls and once dry, you should get a rich color. You
can control the intensity of the color by how much dye you add.
This technique can be used on a variety of surfaces as it is more
like a transparent paint than a true dye. You might also try the
dye used for satin shoes–it is similar to FEV and can be purchased
premixed in a variety of brillian colors. You can find it at most
shoe repair shops and cobblers supply houses.
That brings us to safety. ALWAYS, take every precaution especially
when working with powders! Buy liquid dyes if they are available.
With regard to respirators, if you are going to do this regularly,
invest in a good mask, OVAG cartridges (dust masks are not enough),
chemical gloves, and a set of stainless steel, glass or enamel pots
(unchipped–dye will react with the metal) to reserve just for
dying. DO NOT DYE AROUND AREAS WHERE YOU WILL PREPARE FOOD. DO NOT
USE IMPLIMENTS THAT YOU WILL USE TO PREPARE FOOD. DO NOT UNDER ANY
CIRCUMSTANCES HANDLE DYES WHILE YOU ARE PREGNANT, NURSING, OR
PLANNING TO BECOME PREGNANT. Dyes are far more hazardous than the
makers of Rit would have you believe. I have watched non-smoking
colleagues die of lung cancer in their late 20’s and early 30’s
because they did not take it seriously. You can get a hot plate and
enamel pans at a thrift store far cheaper than the cost of new
Also, while I have always had good experiences with Pro Chemical,
another good source that may be of help to you is Cerulean Blue. I
have been away from dying for a few years, but unless they have
changed the format, their catalog could serve as a dying manual, so
Hope this helps!
Andrea L. McLester