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Pearls Buying Guide

Pearls are celebrated for their luminous glow and beauty. Whether worn with other gemstones or alone, pearls can elevate a look in an instant.

 

Pearls have long symbolized romance, purity and wealth. They possess an almost mythic iridescence and look dramatic in strands, sets and solo settings. When worn as jewellery they make heirloom-quality necklaces, rings, earrings and bracelets. Today almost all pearls sold are grown, or “cultured”, on special farms from pearl oysters and freshwater mussels. Purchasing these treasures can sometimes be a daunting endeavour but this guide provides you with some pearl basics, information on how to evaluate their quality, as well as caring, storing and shopping tips.

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Pearl Basics

Pearl Origins

Natural

Natural pearls form when an “irritant”, such as a piece of sand, works its way into a particular species of oyster, mussel, or clam – which are all referred to as mollusks. The mollusk defensively secretes a fluid called “nacre”, coating the irritant. Layer upon layer of nacre coating is deposited on the irritant until a colourful, lustrous pearl is formed.

Cultured

A cultured pearl is created when an irritant, such as a bead or piece of shell is implanted in the mollusk. The result is often much larger than a natural pearl. Regardless of the method used to acquire a pearl, the process usually takes several years.

Imitation

Imitation pearls are made by dipping a glass bead into a special solution. One can usually tell an imitation by biting on it. Faux pearls glide across your teeth, while the layers of nacre on genuine pearls feel gritty.

 

Types of Pearls

There are numerous types of pearls. This guide covers some of the more well-known ones.

Saltwater Pearls

A saltwater pearl is produced by a saltwater mollusk in saline waters. Natural saltwater pearls are still found, but those marketed for sale are primarily farm-cultured. South Sea, Akoya and Tahitian pearls are all produced in saltwater conditions.

South Sea Pearls

These are the rarest and perhaps most desired pearls as the oyster they originate from, Pinctada maxima, is rare. Because of the rarity and sensitivity of this type of oyster, cultivation of these pearls is difficult. Growing larger pearls requires time, during which many things can go wrong, which contributes to the rarity of this pearl. For these reasons South Sea pearls tend to be among the most expensive. Their most common colours are white, silver and gold and they are cultured in areas throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans – primarily in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar.

Akoya Pearls

Celebrated for their superb lustre and clean surface, Akoya pearls are considered by many as the classic pearl. Akoyas are bead-cultured in the Pinctada fucata martensii, also known as the Akoya oyster. This mollusk is found and farmed mainly in Japan and China. Their pearls are normally white or cream coloured, with overtones of rose and silver.

Akoya pearls tend to be small, ranging in size from about 2 to 11 millimetres (generally considered right at the industry standard). They also tend to be the most consistently round and near-round pearls, making them ideal in terms of matching for multi-pearl jewellery such as strands, bracelets, and sets.

Tahitian Pearls

Traditionally referred to as black pearls, the dramatic colour of a Tahitian pearl can range from a metallic silver, to charcoal, to a multitude of colours including a dominant green. Natural Black Tahitian pearls are extremely rare since only one out of about 10,000 oysters contains a pearl. Tahitian cultured pearls are cultivated from the Black Lipped oyster which can grow to a foot or more in diametre, and in some cases weigh nearly 20 pounds. This large oyster produces a very large pearl. Black Lipped oysters are sensitive to the culturing process, making their pearls costly to produce and to purchase.

Tahitian pearls have an exceptional lustre, with very few surface blemishes. They have a medium thickness nacre coating so they need to be maintained and stored with greater care.

Freshwater Pearls

Cultured in farms or produced in freshwater mussels, which live in ponds, lakes and rivers, freshwater pearls look similar to the Akoya pearl but are usually available for almost 1/5 the price. They appear in a wide variety of shapes and colours. As freshwater pearls are generally solid in nacre and resist chipping, wear and degeneration, they are often a durable pearl option. For these reasons freshwater samples continue to be popular pearl choices.

It is a widely-accepted practice to treat or irradiate freshwater pearls in order to achieve a certain colour. When selecting coloured pearls it is important to know if the colour is natural or the result of some post-harvesting treatment. If a colour has been created by treating a pearl this will result in a lowered cost.

 

Evaluating Pearls

Nacre

The thicker a nacre, the smaller a pearl’s nucleus, and the higher the pearl’s quality.

Lustre

Lustre refers to the shine of a pearl. The higher its lustre, the sharper its shine and reflection. When selecting a pearl, note that larger pearls will have more nacre and thus more lustre.

Colour

In addition to its primary colour a high quality pearl will often have a secondary colour, or “overtone”. For example, a pearl strand may appear white, but when examined closely, a pink overtone may be observed. Pink and silver overtones are often considered markers for quality pearls.

Surface

Pearls with the fewest spots, markings or bumps are considered high quality and are priced accordingly.

Shape

Round, or spherical shaped pearls are the most sought after and expensive due to their rarity and aesthetically-desired form. Akoya, Tahitian, and South Sea pearls tend to be the roundest, while freshwater pearls have more occurrences of oval or slightly off-round shapes. Although round is usually the preferred shape for quality there are many shapes of pearl, including oval, baroque (asymmetrical), semi-baroque and teardrop.

Maintenance

Care

When cared for properly, pearls can last a lifetime. The best way to care for pearls is to wear them often, as the body's natural oils keep pearls lustrous. It is important to keep pearls away from household chemicals, including those found in perfume, makeup and hairspray, as they can dull a pearl’s lustre. It is recommended that you put your pearls on last when getting ready and take them off first when you come home. Do not put pearl jewellery in an ultrasonic cleaner.

Storing

Before putting your pearls away, wipe them with a soft cloth. It is recommended that you do not store your pearls with other jewellery, as they scratch easily when metal or gemstones rub against them. Find a special slot in your jewellery box for the pearls, or keep them in a soft bag made from chamois or another non-abrasive material. If possible, fine pearl necklaces should be restrung periodically to ensure that the cord holding them is in good shape.

Tips for Buying Pearls

  • One of the most important considerations in selecting pearl jewellery is determining the type of pearl that is best suited to your budget and preference.
  • Some experts advise that the pearl should complement your complexion and wardrobe preferences.
  • A pearl that has marks on it does not make the pearl of poor quality or invaluable, rather, you might consider these as marks of authenticity.
  • Consider smaller size pearls unless you strongly prefer the look of big chunky pearls. A pearl that is slightly smaller than another will probably have the same or similar value. Only much larger pearls will be worth more.
  • If you are considering a pearl necklace, decide if you want a double-strand necklace of smaller pearls (less expensive) or a single strand of larger pearls (more expensive).