Pearl Buying Guide
Pearls are an organic gem, called organic because they are created by living creatures. Each pearl begins its existence as a piece of grit or other particle that makes its way into the shell of a marine or freshwater mollusk — some types of oysters and clams. A defense mechanism kicks-in and coats the particle with layer after layer of a substance called nacre, or mother-of-pearl, which eventually becomes thick enough to form a pearl.
Pearls are classified by their origins and their shapes.
Pearl Origin Classifications
Natural pearls are formed when an accidental intruder enters a mollusk's shell and continuous layers of nacre grow like onion skins around the particle. Natural pearls vary in shape depending on the shape of the piece being coated.
Natural pearls have always been considered rare and are quite expensive. They are usually sold by carat weight. Most natural pearls on today's market are vintage pearls.
Like natural pearls, cultured pearls grow inside of a mollusk, but with human intervention. A shell is carefully opened and an object is inserted. Shapes of objects vary, depending on the final shape of pearl that's desired.
Over time the object becomes coated with layers of nacre. The depth of the nacre coating depends on the type of mollusk involved, the water it lives in, and how long the intruder is left in place before being harvested. As nacre thickness increases, so does the quality and durability of the cultured pearl.
Cultured pearls are sold by their size in millimeters.
Saltwater pearls originate within a saltwater mollusk. Saltwater pearls can be either natural or cultured.
Freshwater pearls grow inside of a freshwater mollusk — one that lives in a river or a lake.
PEARL SHAPE CLASSIFICATIONS
SPHERICAL PEARLS are round, which is traditionally the most desirable shape. The rounder the pearl, the more expensive its price tag.
SYMMETRICAL PEARLS include pear shaped pearls and other shapes that have symmetry from one side to another, but are not round.
BAROQUE PEARLS are irregularly shaped pearls. They are often the least expensive category of pearls, but are unique and quite beautiful.
THE QUEEN OF GEMS
Absolute Pearls does not sell 'faux' or imitation pearls. We only sell Freshwater and Saltwater Cultured Pearls.
Unfortunately, many people still describe their ‘faux pearls’ as actual ‘pearls’ (‘faux’ is a French word meaning 'false'). Sometimes this is an honest mistake, sometimes not. It is all too easy for non-experts to be confused.
In the profession, the use of the word pearls on its own is recognized to refer to ‘natural pearls’, although it is accepted nowadays that cultured pearls account for most of the market.
Most imitation pearls are solid or hollow glass beads or plastic beads, quite often coated with a fish scale mixture called essence of the orient or pearl essence. Perhaps one of the most famous types of imitation pearls is ‘Majorca Pearls’ which are essentially solid glass beads covered with many coats of pearl essence and finished to a very high standard. These are often sold at higher prices than real pearls.
There are also what some people call ‘semi-cultured’ as a marketing ploy and is considered misleading. This is where either reject/discarded pearls or glass beads are covered with a powdered mother-of-pearl or similar coating to make them look real. These are classed as imitation.
Other matters to consider are all the factors for valuing and grading pearls. If the pearls are flawless, are perfectly matching, all the same lustre, size and color, you can take it they are too good to be true!
The Tooth Test
This is the easiest, if not the most hygienic, test for telling if a pearl is an imitation or not. Simply, rub the pearl lightly along the biting edge of your upper front teeth. If it feels sandy or gritty, it is probably real. If smooth, it is probably imitation.
Although this test is not 100% foolproof, and other tests can be undertaken, you will probably be safe, unless somebody is seriously out to fool you.
You can further inspect the surface of the pearl with a magnifying glass (10x is industry standard). Real pearls typically have a smooth finish, whereas imitation pearls have a grainy finish. This is quite the opposite from the tooth test where a smooth look and a grainy feel indicates that the pearl is real.
PEARL GRADING & QUALITY
Pearls are graded according to several characteristics – lustre, shape, color, surface and size.
The quality of a pearl’s nacre gives the lustrous quality for which pearls are renowned. Putting it simply, it refers to how shiny the pearls are:
Pearls appear milky or chalky.
Pearls reflect light well and show mirror-like reflections.
Put your pearls on a white surface or a white cloth near a window on a reasonably bright day and see how the pearls reflect the window frame. The clearer the reflection, the more lustrous the pearls.
Lustre depends a great deal on the quality of care bestowed on the product in its early growing stages. The better the pearl producer cares for his molluscs, the better the pearl.
As with natural pearls, high quality lustrous pearls make up only a fraction of the pearls available on the market, and command the very highest prices.
Since a very lustrous baroque pearl is probably more desirable than a round milky pearl, lustre is generally considered to be one of the most important aspects of a pearl’s grading and valuation.
Pearls come in a fascinating variety of shapes, and whilst the rounder the pearl, the more valuable it is, the baroque and off-round shapes have become very popular today. Naturally, this puts the price of the pearls within the budget of a larger market.
The most expensive variety. A proper round pearl is symmetrical and will roll in a straight line. Again, only a small percentage of total pearl production will give you true round pearls.
‘near round’, ‘off-round’, ‘almost round’
All these terms are used as indications that the pearls are ‘roundish’ in various degrees.
Other terms used are egg round/oval or potato which indicate an ‘extended’ round shape – but which can often look round. You might find that these pearls will look round in photographs and where the shape is not stated, you will quite often ‘perceive’ them to be round. These would usually be covered in the Semi-baroque category.
This is a general term that typically covers regular shapes of pearls that are neither round nor off-round and would include button, pear, rondelle, drop shapes and ovals as mentioned above.
Baroque is a general term that indicates an irregular shape. Whilst typically they are the most inexpensive type of pearls, certain specimens can be more valuable than round pearls. Famous baroque pearls have been designed as special jewelry pieces throughout history.
Pearls come in a wide range of natural colors/shades, and many pearls are dyed to suit fashion requirements. Natural colors include the whites, creams, pinks, lilacs, silver and gold shades as well as black for the Tahitian pearls from the black-lipped oyster.
Besides the body color, in more expensive pearls you will usually find color overtones which reflect the pearl’s heart; for example, a white pearl may have a silver or light pink overtone.
Color is a matter of personal taste and is often selected on the grounds of whether it suits the wearer’s skin tone or not.
Geographically, Americans are said to prefer pink pearls, Europeans prefer white and cream, whereas South Americans and Middle Eastern people go more for the cream and gold colors. Cream and gold colors are believed to suit dark and olive skins, while some feel whites and pinks are more suitable for Caucasians and Asians. Try clothes of the same color as the pearls – if the color of the clothes suits you, then the pearls should do as well.
Blemishes are marks, bumps or little pot holes which, in reality, give each strand its unique identifying factors.
The fewer blemishes a pearl has, the more valuable it is, to find pearls without blemishes is rare and therefore their price is likely to be higher.
Think of blemishes on pearls as fingerprints. However, any serious damage (e.g. cracks, nacre chipped off, etc.) to the nacre is to be avoided as almost certainly this will affect the longevity of the pearl.
When assessing pearls, always look at each pearl individually and carefully to judge the surface quality.
The larger the pearl, the more valuable it is. Usually it would have been in the mollusc longer, thus incurring a higher investment cost.
Each of the main types of pearls has a common range of sizes:
- Freshwater pearls typically range from 3mm up to 12mm,
- South Sea or Tahitian Pearls start from around 8mm right up to 18mm or larger.
- Akoya pearls average 4mm to 10mm.
Identical pearls of the same quality in sizes up to 5.5 or 6mm do not vary greatly in price. It might be 10/20% more for the next 0.5 or 1mm up in size. However, a jump of 1mm after 6mm, especially around 8 or 9mm (considered large), will cause the price to jump 50% or even 100%.
Pearl Necklace Lengths
|PEARL NECKLACE TYPE
||40 or longer
How to Wear Pearls
The Pearl Collar ~ 12 to 13 inches
Pearl collars are 12 - 13 inches long. They are usually made up of three or more strands and lie snugly on the middle of the neck. Pearl collars are an ideal complement to boat neck, V-neck, or off-the-shoulder fashions.
The Pearl Choker ~ 14 to 16 inches
A pearl choker is 14 - 16 inches long. This classic and versatile piece is appropriate with everything from casual to formal eveningwear, and complements almost any neckline. The perfect length to add subtle elegance to your workday paired with a button-down shirt, yet just as stylish with a cocktail dress.
The Princess Necklace ~ 17 to 19 inches
The princess necklace is 17 - 19 inches in length. The most common length for pearl necklaces, it is well suited for wear with crew and high necklines. It also complements low, plunging necklines. Because 18 inches is considered the classic length for pearl necklaces. This is an excellent choice if you are not certain which strand length is most appropriate.
The Opera Necklace ~ 26 to 36 inches
The opera length necklace is 26 - 36 inches long and offers many attractive options. It can be worn as a single strand with high necklaces or doubled to create a fashionable two-strand choker. It can be knotted at the neckline or above the bust to create a stylish vintage look that is gaining popularity as a contemporary fashion trend. Traditionally, opera length necklaces are worn with eveningwear, although using them to accessorize more casual attire has become a fresh, cutting-edge fashion statement
The Pearl Rope ~ 37 inches or longer
A pearl rope is 37 inches or longer. This luxurious length can be both elegant and sexy. It can be made with several clasps, enabling it to be broken down into different necklace and bracelet combinations, or doubled and even tripled to create a stunning multi-strand pearl choker. This versatile length may also be tied in a knot for a charming modern look reminiscent of the height of 1920s flapper fashion. A very popular way to wear pearls, ropes may also be knotted and slung over the shoulder to accentuate the beauty of a backless dress.