When shopping for pearls there are many factors to take into account and it can be quite confusing, especially for first time buyers. The size of the pearl or the length of the strand may be an easy decision but in order to better understand which set may be the perfect one there are other value factors to consider. Pearls are organic gemstones and each one is unique. The most desirable tend to be those that appear "perfect" or bright white with fantastic mirror-like luster and rosy pink overtones. The guide below helps you determine the quality of the pearls you are considering and how to separate a phenomenal strand from one that may just be standard quality.
The main factors to consider are size, shape, color, luster, matching and length. Each can affect both the appearance as well as the cost of the pearls and should be taken into account before making a purchase.
Saltwater pearls come in all different sizes from the smallest seed pearl to the largest 10mm specimens. They are typically measured in millimeters (mm) and rounded to the nearest .5mm.
Seed pearls are typically used as accents in vintage and antique jewelry. They can be cultured but are often naturally formed when culturing larger pearls. They are very small (1-2mm) and can be drilled or mounted in a prong setting.
A uniform strand consists of pearls that are nearly all the same size although they tend to vary up or down slightly. A difference of .5mm for a well matched strand is standard.
A graduated strand consists of pearls ranging is size with the smallest pearls near the clasp and largest closer to the center. They are measured in a range such as 3.5mm to 7.5mm. They are a very classic style with vintage pearls and are harder to find in newer strands.
With all other factors being similar the larger the pearls the higher the value. Akoya pears take years to grow and larger sizes take two or more years to grow. The average range for Akoya pearls from about 1mm all the way up to 10mm. If you have pearls larger than this they are probably South Sea Pearls.
Pearls are a natural gemstone and come in all different organic shapes. The most commonly used in jewelry is round or near round.
Round-Appears round to the eye with no variations in symmetry.
Near-Round-Appears mostly round with slight variations. Might have a minute elongated appearance or a flat area.
Oval-Elongated but symmetrical shape.
Button- Appears symmetrical but flattened on one or two sides. More common in freshwater pearls.
Drop-Symmetrical but pear shape. Commonly used in pendants or earrings.
Semi-Baroque-Not quite symmetrical with slightly irregular shape.
Baroque-Has no apparent symmetry and is organically shaped.
All other factors considered perfectly round pearls are the most expensive as there are many things that can go wrong in the culturing process to influence shape. Baroque pearls can be a fun way to show off unusual or rare pearls!
There are three types of color to consider when referring to pearls:
Bodycolor- The dominant color of the pearl. In the case of Akoya pearls they can be white, cream, yellow/gold or blue/gray.
Overtone-This is a translucent color that appears over a large area of the pearls surface. This is typically the beautiful rosy pink hue quality akoya pearls have. This is caused by a complex interaction between the nacre of the pearl and light.
Orient-More than one translucent color, surface iridescence. This is sometime seen on baroque pearls or blue akoya pearls where a small area may show green, blue, aubergine or other rainbow colors.
All other factors considered pure white akoya pearls with a bright pink overtone tend to be the most valuable. This represents the top standard and it has become harder and harder to find due to diminished water quality and increased temperatures. Many older pearls have better color and overtones. Highly saturated natural blue akoya pearls offer a unique way to make a fashion statement while still keeping classy and refined.
Luster if often regarded as the most important quality factor. It is the intensity and sharpness of the light reflected off the surface of the pearl. This usually corresponds to nacre thickness or quality. Nacre is the natural coating a mollusk deposits on the bead used to create a cultured pearl. It is composed of aragonite, calcite and conchiolin. The quality is determined by the amount and regularity of the layers.
Luster is often graded with these categories:
Excellent-Reflections appear bright and sharp. You can see your reflection clearly in the pearl when viewing them.
Very Good-Reflections appear bright and near sharp. You can see your reflection but it may appear slightly hazy.
Good-Reflections are bright but not very sharp. Think of an out of focus photograph.
Fair-Reflections are weak and blurry.
Poor-Reflections are dim and diffused. You can see shapes and some colors but it is difficult to clearly make out anything.
Luster is what gives life to pearls and all things considered is what can make a strand a stunner or easily passed by. Even extremely baroque or oddly colored pearls with excellent luster can be highly valuable.
The term surface refers to the blemishes on the surface of a pearl. They may be natural or could be damage the pearl sustained during drilling or overtime due to wear or misuse.
Abrasion-A series of scratches on the surface of a pearl.
Bump-A natural bulge, blister or other small bump not large enough to affect the basic shape of the pearl.
Chip-An opening or space on the surface of a pearl. This often happens around the drill hole of the pearl as they are delicate and can be damaged while being processed for stringing.
Crack-A surface reaching break or fracture in the nacre. Pearl are organic gemstones and can dry out overtime and become brittle. They can be cracked or damaged if not handled carefully.
Flat-A flat section of a pearl that is otherwise round.
Gap-An area where no nacre has grown. More common on baroque pearls.
Pit-A small indentation on the surface of the pearl. Can be found in groups.
Scratch-A thin grove or depression on the surface. Be careful storing your pearl jewelry with other gold or silver pieces. The metal can scratch the soft surfaces and damage your pearls over time.
Spot-An area that is darker, lighter or more dull than the surrounding surface.
Wrinkle-An area that has an irregular ridge or crease. Often resembling wrinkled clothing.
Fun fact: Nacre is deposited slower in winter and allows for tighter layers and higher luster. Pearls harvested at those times tend to be better quality! Global warming and sea temperature rises have also contributed to a lower quality of pearls in recent years. It is getting more difficult to buy top quality akoya pearls and vintage is always a great option for the best quality!
Matching applies to how well each pearl in a piece of jewelry was sorted for uniformity. It takes into account all other factors including, size, shape, color, luster and surface.
Excellent-Pearls are uniform in appearance.
Very Good-Very minor variations in appearance.
Good-Minor variations in uniformity.
Fair-Noticeable variations in uniformity
Poor-Very noticeable variations in uniformity.
All other factors considered pearl jewelry that has the most uniformity is the most desirable. The strand above was created by Mr. Mikimoto himself and took years to select just the right pearls to make it as uniform and beautiful as possible.
The length of a pearl necklace can really make a difference when determining style. Chokers can be versatile and worn everyday and layered while longer opera strands might be better for a night out.
Here are a few options when considering which length to choose:
12-16", Collar length-The shortest available strand that tends to sit on the mid or upper neck. Can be worn every day and unlikely to catch or be damaged easily.
16-18", Choker length-This is a very classic length and sits close to or just above the collar bone. It is one of the most popular lengths.
18-24", Princess length-This is the longer of the classic lengths and sits just below the collar bone. It is a very versatile length and can be worn either dressed up or down.
24-28" Matinee length-This is a longer length that is a fun change from the shorter pearls. It is a slightly more formal length and can be perfect to layer with a shorter strand.
28-45" Opera length- This length speaks luxury. It can also be worn doubled up as a double strand choker style.
45"+ Rope length- This is often the longest strand and very versatile. It can be worn as a double or even a triple strand. It can be knotted or wrapped for a variety of styles.
Overall pearl buying is a very personal decision. Some people may like the classic perfection of a perfectly round, uniform sized strand with rosy pink overtones while others may like a baroque strand of natural blue akoya. Each has its own beauty and with this guide picking out the best strand has never been easier.