How to Buy Pearls: Everything You Need to Know

Every woman should have pearl jewelry among her jewelry collection. Pearl quality is dependent on its source, how it was formed and other quality factors. When shopping for pearl jewelry, your search should lead you to a professional jeweler near you.

Pearl Jewelry: Real Versus Fake

Real pearls are examples of nature’s beautiful magic. They are formed when a mollusk (oyster, clam, mussel) has an irritant enter its shell; in defense, the mollusk produces layers of fluid (known as nacre, pronounced NAY-kur) around the irritant. The process takes between 5-10 years, and they result is the beautiful luminous beads we cherish as pearls.

Let’s review the three types of pearls you may consider when shopping for pearl jewelry: natural, cultured and imitation.

 Natural Pearls

Natural pearls, those that form organically in nature, are extremely rare — very few are on the market today. The best source for natural pearls was the Arabian Gulf, but when oil was discovered around the 1930s the Gulf waters could no longer produce pearls. Today, traditional fishing for natural pearls is still practiced in India — but the pearls harvested are often small and expensive.

Cultured Pearls

Cultured pearls make up the majority of pearls on the market today. The “culturing” process dates back to the late 19th century, cultured pearls are formed in the same way as natural pearls, and are considered real pearls. In cultured pearls, an irritant is surgically placed into the mollusk and protected in “pearl farms” while the pearl develops. While man can start the pearl process, it is still up to nature to determine the quality of the final pearl. Of the pearls created after a five-to-ten year farming cycle, only 5% are of the high quality required for fine jewelry, according to the Cultured Pearl Association of America.

Imitation Pearls

Imitation pearls are the third type and have no connection to the natural pearl making process. They are made from glass beads that are dipped into a solution made from fish scales. While most have a high luster, it may eventually fade.

How to Tell Real Pearls from Imitation

Professional jewelers can spot an imitation pearl from cultured pearls, and will not sell you imitation marked as real.

One way you can test a pearl as imitation is to rub it against another pearl; imitation pearls glide across each other but cultured pearls feel gritty because of the layers of nacre.

Many cultured pearls undergo treatments to enhance their luster or alter their color. This does not make them any less real. A professional jeweler is trained to understand and explain these treatments, especially because they can affect the pearl jewelry’s value. Trust your pearl jewelry purchase with a jewelry store known for its educated staff and ethical standards.

 

Pearl Quality Factors

Pearls are classified by origin, then graded by size, shape, nacre thickness, color, luster, surface clarity and how they match. Here’s a quick summary of pearl quality factors to get started:

Lustre

The value of a pearl comes from the nacre’s ability to absorb, refract and reflect light. This quality is known as ‘orient’ – the deep, inner glow and shimmering iridescence of pearls.

The very best pearls have a bright metallic lustre; whereas poor quality pearls show very little reflectivity. Lustre will reflect vibrant pink and rainbow hues off the pearl’s surface, and how well you can see your own reflection in a pearl indicates the quality of its lustre. Good lustre has the gift to minimise other imperfections and its intensity is strongest when seen against its wearer’s skin.

Shape

Since cultured pearls are grown by oysters and subject to the whims of Mother Nature, it is very rare to find a perfectly round cultured pearl – and these are considered most valuable. While many people prefer the perfect spheres of classic pearl jewelry, baroque pearls — those that have an irregular shape — are now commonly seen in fine jewelry. Freshwater pearls, from freshwater sources like lakes and rivers, are most often baroque.

Size

Measured by their diameter in millimeters, the average cultured pearls sold today are between 7 and 7 1/2 millimeters. Generally, the larger the pearl, the more valuable it will be.

Pearl Size Chart from The Pearl Source
Pearl Size Chart from The Pearl Source

Once all of the other three factors have been judged, this is the most important factor in the end. Pearl size definitely matters when it comes to these gems. Traditionally, larger pearls were for more mature women back in the day. But, these days, all adult women are flocking to the larger sized gems. Smaller pearls are being used in jewelry trending for little girls and teenagers.

Complexion

Cleanliness of the cultured pearl surface refers to the absence of disfiguring spots, bumps or cracks. A cultured pearl with a clean surface will have a higher value than a spotted, bumpy or cracked one.

Color

Rose Silver/White Cream Gold Blue/Gray cultured pearls occur in colors from rosé to black. While color is a matter of preference, rosé or silver/white pearls tend to look best on fair skin tones, while cream and gold-tone cultured pearls are flattering to darker complexions.

Quality Pearl Strands

  • Pearls should not bunch or twist
  • Knots should be shaped uniformly and pushed snugly against both sides of every pearl
  • Silk cord should match the pearl color as closely as possible

Quality Checks and Certifications?

Purchasing jewelry online can be risky, especially for high-value transactions, so be sure that the seller is disclosing all relevant information about the grading of the pearls. In the case of exclusive varieties, some additional authentication by an expert would be advisable before purchasing. For very special occasions, stick to the highest grades, such as “AAA” or “AAAA”, to receive the most flawless and lustrous pearls.

How to Clean & Store Pearls

  • Apply cosmetics, hair sprays and perfume before putting on any pearl jewelry. When you remove the jewelry, wipe it carefully with a soft cloth to remove any traces of these substances.
  • You can also wash your pearl jewelry with mild soap and water. Do not clean cultured pearls with any chemicals, abrasives or solvents. These substances can damage your pearls.
  • Always lay cultured pearl strands flat to dry.  Hanging a strand may stretch the threads.
  • Do not toss your cultured pearl jewelry carelessly into a purse, bag or jewel box. A pearl’s surface is soft and can be scratched by hard metal edges or by the harder gemstones of other jewelry pieces.
  • Place cultured pearls in a chamois bag or wrap them in tissue when putting them away.
  • Cosmetics, perspiration, oils and ordinary wear weaken and stretch the threads on which the pearls are strung. Bring your pearls back to your jeweler for restringing once a year. Make certain the pearls are strung with a knot between each pearl. This will prevent loss of pearls if the string should break.

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