One of nature’s luminous treasures, pearls are one of history’s most valuable and sought-after gemstones, with a rich history. Today with cultivation techniques, owing one of these most prized luxury never has been more affordable, with wide range of varieties, that kings and queens, of eras gone by, can only dream about. This is a general guide to help the initiate buy pearls.
Majority of pearls sold today are cultivated. Natural pearls are very rare, about 1 out of 1,000 oysters; when found, they are usually small and expensive. For a more in-depth look, check out my previous post on pearls.
There’s no standardized grading for pearls, meaning buyers will see different grading scales. Value is based on color, luster, surface, nacre, and size. Regardless whatever the industry considers as valuable, buy what fancies your eyes.
Akoya – the classic pearl, averaging 6 to 8 mm. Consistently round with milky white or silver color. Overtones can be rose, silver, green, blue, or gold. Often use in necklaces due to their consistency.
White South Sea – the largest cultured pearl, averaging 13 mm. Comes in creamy white and silver with overtones of rose and silver.
Golden South Sea – gold-lipped oyster variety of South Sea. Pearls can possess pale yellow to golden color. The golden color is one of the rarest pearls.
Tahitian – produces the mythic black pearls; they can range between 6 to 16 mm. These can have body color of gray, green, silver, blue, and black that can have overtones of peacock green, blue or rose.
Freshwater – the most numerous, and affordable, on the market; ranges from 3 to 7 mm. However, they tend to be irregular in shape and do not have the luster of seawater pearls. Usually white but they are dyed dark blue or black, which gives them an unique iridescence – rainbow – effect.
Conch – not a true pearl, no nacre, but produces unique bright pink or peach pearls with flame-like patterns. Pricing dependent on the fiery play of flame patterns, similar to valuation of opal. Popular among collectors.
Melo melo – similar to conch pearls, these exhibit a bright orange hue with flame-like patterns. Rare and prized by collectors.
White is still considered the standard, and highly versatile. Akoya pearls will be go-to white color as these are the epitome of classic pearl. Golden pearls are very expensive due to their rarity; the same can be said for bright orange and pink from conch and melo. Buyers should be aware that many white pearls, especially freshwater, are dyed dark blue or black to enhance the color and value.
In addition, buyers should look at the secondary color called overtone, or how the surface reflects light can create different hues. The desired overtone for white pearls is a rose hue. For black pearls, the sought-after overtone is peacock green. And for rare Cortez pearls, the iconic color is dark pistachio green with rainbow overtone.
Given the chance, examine against a white background like white velvet and use full spectrum lighting.
Another important factor is luster, which gives pearls their intense, deep glow. Luster is created when light is reflected off the many layers of nacre; so, more layers of nacre, means more luster. A good pearl should have reflections similar to a mirror. The sharper reflected object, the more valuable the pearl is, while a chalky and dull reflection means a low quality nacre layers.
The next factor to look for is the level of blemishes on the surface of the nacre. Sea particles colliding with new layers of nacre will cause small marks, bubbles, and lumps; there’s no avoiding this. With that, 95% to 99% blemish-free is considered highest quality.
Look out for sanded, or worked, pearls. Done on flawed pearls to give them a blemish-free appearance. The giveaway, if not labeled, is the lack of luster and thin layer of nacre. If the nacre is thin enough, buyers can see the nucleus reflecting inside.
Obviously, the larger the pearl, the higher the asking price. Even if the Akoya is the white pearl standard, South Sea white pearls are usually more expensive due to the larger sizes. On a side note, most natural pearls are quite small compared to cultured pearls but more expensive due to rarity.
In general, Akoya has an asking price of $61 to $3,000 per pearl. South Sea varieties can range from $399 to $30,000 each. Tahitian pearls range from $120 to $10,000. Freshwater, on the other hand, usually cost about $69 to $1,500.
Unfortunately, there are lots of imitation pearls. Imitation pearls are made from glass beads dipped in a solution of fish scales to give the glass some luster and overtone. These glass beads will appear very smooth, round, and lacks the luster of true pearls.
A simple way to test a pearl is to gently rub it against your teeth. Imitations will be smooth while real pearls will be a bit gritty, like sandpaper. Alternatively, you can also rub two pearls together. Again, imitation pearls will smoothly glide while real pearls will feel like rubbing two sandpapers together, due to the nacre.
Due to its softness, pearl accessories are usually kept away from areas of active movements. As such, the iconic accessory is the necklace, especially after the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. There are many styles – from short to long – collar, choker, bib, princess, matinee, opera, and rope. The longer the necklace, the more formal and sophisticated the attire. The princess pearl necklace has been popular since the 1940’s and is a versatile piece of jewelry. Generally, pearls 7 mm and over are for an adult women while those less than 7 mm are suited for young girls.
In addition, buyers should examine how well the pearls match with each other, whether uniform or graduated – where the pearls slowly shift shade of color. A well matched necklace or bracelet is a sign of good craftsman.
White and silver pearl necklaces are versatile and compliment those with fair skin. Darker pearls, like black and gold, are more flattering to those with darker complexions. These are just suggestions, of course. Pink, peach, and lavender can be good for spring and summer use, showing off a more fun and flirty side.
Pendants and earrings are popular option. As a side note, natural pearls are usually set as a single piece to show off its rarity, like pendants or earrings.
Baroque, or irregular shaped, pearls can be a great and cheap way to add to your collection. Modern jewelers are making great use of them to make unique pieces of jewelry. Buying loose strand pearls, or drilled pearls, can be cheaper way to slowly build your own necklace or bracelet to be strung together later.
Pearls can last a lifetime with some simple caring tips. Simply wearing them will keep the pearls moist and lustrous from body oils. After use, wipe the them with slightly damp, lint-free cloth. To clean them, wipe them with water mixed with a few drops of soap then wipe them again with just clean water; do not soak pearls.
Keep these organic gemstones away from chemicals like perfume, makeup, and hairspray. As such, put on your pearls last when dressing and remove them first when undressing.
When putting away or storing pearls, wrap them in a soft cloth and separate from other jewelries to avoid accidental collisions. If you plan to stash them away for a long time, like a safe deposit, leave a cup of water near them so avoid cracking.