A Guide to Purchasing Pearls
Buying pearls, whether it be pearl earrings or a pearl necklace, can seem daunting if you don’t know much about them. For instance, how do you know you’re buying the real thing? And, are they Freshwater pearls? To help you feel a bit more informed, we’ve put together this ‘Pearl Education’ to guide you through everything you need to know about pearls and pearl jewellery.
Cultured Pearls Vs. Natural Pearls
All pearls for sale within the retail market are “cultured pearls”. The only exception would be if they are labeled as ‘natural pearls’. While you’ll often find jewellers and consumers labelling Freshwater pearls as “cultured pearls”, this is a mistake, as all types of pearls (Akoya, Tahitian, South Sea Pearls, and Freshwater) are in fact cultured. Therefore, seasoned jewellers and consumers will, instead, categorise the pearls according to their type.
Types of Pearls
If you’re the average consumer, you’ve probably only ever heard of Freshwater pearls, right? Well, there are in fact two different types of pearls. These are: Freshwater and Sea Water. The Sea Water pearls are then further broken up into Akoya, South Sea, and Tahitian.
There are more than just white? Yes, indeed. The natural colours of pearls are white, rose, peach, and light grey. Any other, darker colours you may find on the market have been enhanced through the use of dye. Yet, even the natural colours can include hues of blue, rose, or gold. For example, you may see a string of pearls that are predominantly white in colour, but with either a blue, rose, or gold hue. Furthermore, because pearls are naturally formed, each and every one is unique. You will rarely find two authentic pearls with the exact same colouring.
Shapes and Sizes of Pearls
While we can provide a general guide to the shapes and sizes of the different types of pearls, it is important to remember that, with any particular stone, there can be slight variations in the tone, shape, and weight of the pearl, along with the possible inclusion of some blemishes. As already mentioned, pearls are natural stones and, therefore, each and every one is unique. Another helpful tip to keep in mind is that pearls are measured in mm across the width, not the height.
Starting with Akoya pearls, these pearls usually measure between 5mm and 11mm; while Tahitian pearls measure between 9mm and 16mm. Next, we have Freshwater pearls measuring between 2mm and 18mm, and, finally, South Sea pearls measuring between 9mm and 18mm.
When it comes to the shapes of these pearls, Freshwater pearls will appear either round, near round, button, or baroque; while South Sea and Tahitian pearls will appear round, near round, or baroque. The Akoya pearl, however is usually perfectly round.
Factors Determining the Value of a Pearl
When it comes to cultured pearls, there are various contributing factors which, together, identify the final value of the pearl.
Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the final value of a pearl is it’s shape. While perfectly round pearls are the most sought after, and therefore the priciest, many consumers are drawn to the unconventional charm of the baroque and near round pearls as well. Below is a more detailed look into the various pearl shapes and associated value:
- Round: As indicated by the name, round pearls are flawlessly spherical in shape. These are extremely rare, and, therefore, the most valuable. Only 5-10% of a pearl farm’s harvest will be even and round. Typically, all high-grade Akoya pearls fall into this category.
- Near Round: These pearls are close to being flawlessly spherical in shape, but not quite; and are, therefore, significantly cheaper. To the untrained eye, however, they may appear perfectly round. The majority of Freshwater pearls found on the market fall into this category.
- Button: While symmetrical in shape, these pearls appear to be slightly flattened. These are not too common, apart from Freshwater pearls where a round nucleus is not used.
- Drop: Also symmetrical in shape, drop pearls maintain a tear drop shape and are, therefore, often used within pearl earrings and/or a pearl necklace.
- Baroque: Baroque pearls do not have an exact shape, i.e.: they are irregular in shape, and can range from off round, circle pearls to stick or cross shapes.
- Circle: These pearls are also baroque in shape, but with visible ‘circles’ or ‘rings’ around the diameter. This particular shape is most commonly found in Tahitian and South Sea pearls.
The next factor contributing to the overall value of a pearl is that of its surface. It goes without saying that the cleaner the pearl’s surface appears, the better. Furthermore, a high-quality pearl would be one where the surface is at least 95% free from any type of defect. For example, any chips and/or gaps are considered significant surface quality concerns and will, without a doubt, lower the value of a pearl. Other possible surface defects include:
While a pearls surface definitely contributes to its final value, minor surface flaws can be over-ridden by other contributing value factors. Furthermore, a couple of pearls with visible flaws within a string of pearls, where the remaining pearls are near flawless, may not decrease the overall value, due to the fact that the value is obtained by uniformity, not slight differences.
Somewhat related to the surface of a pearl is its luster. A high quality pearl will maintain a high luster, which appears almost mirror-like. A pearls luster is what makes it “pop” and stand out. It’s one of the reasons pearls are as sought after as they are, as no other gemstone reflects light the way a pearl does. The degree of luster a pearl has is determined by how each layer of nacre grew, as well as the nacres translucence.
It’s worth noting that Akoya pearls are usually found to have the highest luster, maintaining a nacre thickness of 0.4mm or higher. While South Sea pearls, for example, include a more satin-like luster.
Last, but certainly not least, a pearls size adds to its value with the larger the pearl, the higher the price. Traditionally, a women will “earn the right” the wear larger pearls as she grows older. Rule of thumb is to select pearls which are 7mm and bigger, for adult women, and anything smaller for young girls and teenagers. Of course, this is just the pearl tradition, but does not need to be stuck to. View the sizing chart to get guidance on how to measure for pearl necklaces and bracelets.
There are grading systems used between sellers and buyers such as the AAA-A system.
AAA is the highest quality pearl, the pearl is virtually flawless.